A Serious Heart Condition

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. – Matthew 5:27-30 ESV

Notice what Jesus says here. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” For the average Jew, God’s prohibition against adultery was only referring to the physical act itself. And while the Mosaic Law clearly commanded, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14 ESV), Jesus informs them that God had far more in mind than they perceived. The issue was the heart.

In the Old Testament, God accused the people of Israel of spiritual adultery time and time again. And not just when they were actually worshiping other gods. They could be unfaithful and adulterous, even in the midst of their worship of Him. Consider this stinging criticism He leveled against them:

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

They had a heart problem, and so did the people listening to Jesus’ sermon on the hillside. They just didn’t know it. They were stuck on the externals, the outward meaning of the law, and their physical adherence to it. As long as they restrained themselves from actually committing the act of adultery, they were good with God, or so they thought.

Jesus uses the Greek word, “lust” (epithymeō), which meansto set the heart upon.” The word could be positive or negative in its meaning. It all depended upon the context in which it was used. But if you set your heart upon another person’s spouse, lust was most definitely wrong. In its negative usage, lust was to strongly seek that which had been forbidden by God. So, what Jesus is really telling His audience is that it’s all about their purity of heart, not the physical act of adultery itself. In other words, it’s all about the motivation that leads up to the act. What would cause someone to set their heart upon something God had forbidden or placed off-limits? And this was not a new concept. Jesus was not introducing something radical here, but simply reminding His listeners of what the Scriptures had always taught about the heart.

Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. – Proverbs 4:23 NLT

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? – Jeremiah 17:9 NLT

To refrain from committing adultery was not enough. Just because someone has the fortitude to keep themselves from having sex with their best friend’s wife, doesn’t mean they don’t want to and haven’t obsessed about it regularly. That seems to be Jesus’ point here. You can brag all you want to about your commitment to God’s law, and you may impress your friends with your piety, but you won’t fool God. Because He knows your heart. He knows your every thought. God isn’t just interested in outward compliance to His law, He wants a wholehearted commitment to Him and His will regarding righteous behavior.

And Jesus gives a shockingly graphic prescription for handling the problem of lust.

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” – Matthew 5:29 ESV

That sounds a bit extreme, doesn’t it? Is Jesus really recommending that we pluck out our eyes to keep from lusting? But wait, He’s not done.

“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” – Matthew 5:30 ESV

Would cutting off of your hand keep you from sinning? Probably not. And that is not what Jesus is teaching here. He is clearly using hyperbole, the use of over-exaggeration to drive home a point. So, what is His point? To understand what Jesus is saying, it might help to use a real-life event as an illustration. Early on in King David’s reign, we are told that a time came “when kings go out to battle” (2 Samuel 11:1 ESV). It was springtime in Israel, the time of year when nations did battle. But the passage tells us that, while Joab and the forces of Israel went to war, “David remained at Jerusalem.” He stayed behind. And then we’re told:

It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. – 2 Samuel 11:2 ESV

David had time on his hands. And notice what it says: “he saw.” David “saw” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is ra’ah, and it means “to behold, enjoy, look upon.” In other words, he lusted. But his lust was wrong because this woman was not his wife. In fact, the story will reveal that she was the wife of one of David’s soldiers. But notice that, at this point in the story, all David had done was lust. He had looked and enjoyed. But that would prove to be inadequate for David.

So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. – 2 Samuel 11:4 ESV

David “took” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is laqach, which means “to seize, to take, carry away.” He saw and he took. He used his eyes and his hands. He gazed longingly and wrongly on something that was not his, then he seized what he saw to satisfy his own desires. James makes it quite clear what was going on in David’s heart and life at that moment:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:14-15 NLT

David saw with his eyes and took with his hands. His lustful thoughts resulted in sinful actions. But it all began in his heart. D. A. Carson provides us with some helpful insight into what Jesus meant by plucking out our eye and cutting off our hand.

We are to deal drastically with sin. We must not pamper it, flirt with it, enjoy nibbling a little bit of it around the edges. We are to hate it, crush it, dig it out. – D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

Our greatest desire should be to live in conformity to the will of God. And anything that might prevent us from doing so should be seen as expendable. A big part of our problem is our inordinate love affair with the things of this world. We lust after, covet, desire, and long for the things the world offers. We seek satisfaction and significance from the things of this world. In essence, we commit adultery with the world in order to satisfy our lustful desires. We see and we take. But James gives us a second word of warning:

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:$ NLT

And James wasn’t done.

Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. – James 4:8-10 NLT

There it is again: Purify your hearts. Adultery is a heart issue. Lust is a heart issue. And impurity of heart is the real problem. That is why Jesus said earlier, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8 ESV). Purity of heart has to do with loving God by giving Him every area of your life. It is to “love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” (Matthew 2:37 NLT). Purity of heart is not outward conformity to a set of rules, but integrity or wholeness of life. It is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of life. If you are seeking after God, it will be hard to seek satisfaction and significance elsewhere. If you are busy lusting after God, you will find it difficult to lust after someone or something else. Purity of heart flows out and influences our hands and our eyes.

Remember what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees regarding their man-made laws and regulations:

“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.” – Matthew 15:19-20 NLT

External behavior is a byproduct of the inward condition of the heart. Adultery is a result of misplaced lust and desire. When we should be seeking all our satisfaction and significance from God, we end up committing adultery in our hearts, proving unfaithful to Him by turning our affections to something or someone other than Him. For Jesus, adherence to the letter of the law was not the point. It was the condition of the heart. He was coming to do radical heart surgery on the people of God. He was trying to get them to realize that their problem with God was not their inability to keep His laws, but their incapacity to love Him faithfully, which kept them from living for Him obediently. Until their hearts were renewed, their affections would remain misplaced. Jesus came to reveal to them just how much God loved them.

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:7-8 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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Failure to Love

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” – Matthew 5:21-26 ESV

Jesus has just finished saying, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19 ESV). This was a direct reference to Pharisees and other religious leaders who were guilty of playing fast and loose with the Law. Jesus would make a habit of referring to these individuals as hypocrites, accusing them of putting their own man-made laws ahead of God’s commands. They would find ways to create loopholes regarding the Law by making their own set of counter-commands that allowed them to claim strict obedience while actually ignoring God’s commands altogether. So, Jesus puts a kibosh on their little scheme by revealing that adherence to God’s Law was not open to interpretation or alteration. Not even He, the Son of God, was free to eliminate or amend a single one of God’s commands. In fact, Jesus is about to show that obedience to the Law requires far more than external adherence. Keeping the letter of the law was not enough. It wasn’t so much about rule-keeping as it was about the condition of the heart.

One of the phrases you will see Jesus repeatedly use in this section of his sermon is, “You have heard that it was said.” Each time Jesus says it, He will juxtapose it with the words, “But I say.”  Jesus is setting up an important contrast between what His audience believed and what was actually true. He is addressing perception versus reality.

With the “help” of the religious leaders and interpreters of the law, the Jews had become confused concerning which were the commands of God and which were those of men. By stating, “You have heard,” Jesus was claiming that their understanding of the law was skewed and inaccurate. Somewhere along the way, they had missed the whole point. It really wasn’t about legalism and rule-keeping. It was about the condition of the heart. Refraining from doing something did not mean the desire to do so was absent. Righteousness was not a matter of moral restraint, but of an inner conviction of the heart.

For instance, concerning God’s command not to commit murder, Jesus infers that the general perception of the Jews concerning this law was inaccurate and insufficient. God’s prohibition against the taking of life was really about the problem of hatred, and hatred was a problem of the heart. In fact, Jesus is getting to the heart of the issue (excuse the pun). Murder is an expression of hatred or contempt. And just because you manage not to commit murder, doesn’t mean you don’t have the desire to do so in your heart. Later on, in this same Gospel, Matthew records the words of Jesus where He clarifies the true source of murder and why God created a law against it.

“But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you.” – Matthew 15:18-20 NLT

Jesus spoke these words in response to an accusation leveled against His disciples by the scribes and Pharisees. They had come to Jesus in a huff, wondering why the disciples failed to wash their hands before they ate. This was just one of the many man-made laws they had created and had deemed of equal importance to the rest of God’s commands. They were obsessed with outward purity and were accusing the disciples of eating with impure, defiled hands. And Jesus had some very strong words for these men:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” – Matthew 23:25 ESV

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 ESV

God is concerned about the condition of the heart. That is why Jesus makes the argument that it is not only those who commit physical murder who are guilty and worthy of judgment but those who hate.

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” – Matthew 5:22 ESV

Whoever insults his brother or, out of hatred, calls him a fool, is just as guilty as a murderer. Jesus knew the heart of man. He was well aware of the pride that welled up in the hearts of those who could claim to have kept God’s law because they had never committed murder. But Jesus gives them the bad news that, in God’s eyes, their hatred was just as condemning. 

Most Bible translations label the topic of this section of Jesus’ sermon as “Murder.” But what Jesus is really talking about is love or the lack of it. Most of us have kept God’s command not to murder, but every one of us is guilty of having hated another human being. You see, our perception is that murder is forbidden, and everyone who commits murder will be judged. But Jesus presents a much different reality. Hatred is forbidden, and anyone who hates his brother is just as guilty before God as if they had murdered him.

God’s ultimate desire for us is not that we simply refrain from murder, but that we replace our hatred with love.  Animosity and hatred were rife within the Jewish community, and they saw nothing wrong with it. In fact, they would come before God with their offerings and sacrifices, while harboring hatred for one another. This is why Jesus says, “if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23-24 NLT). How can you expect to show love to God by offering sacrifices to Him when you can’t even show love to those around you. The apostle John reveals the absurdity of that mindset.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters. – 1 John 4:20-21 NLT

It is so easy for us to excuse our hatred of another human being. We justify it and rationalize it away while claiming that our hatred is well-deserved. We see our hatred as harmless. But Jesus claims that it devalues the life of another human being in the same way that murder does. It takes away their dignity. It diminishes their worth. We view them as undeserving of our love, all the while forgetting that God sent His Son to die for us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). He had every right to hate us, but instead, He showed us love. The apostle Paul reminds us of the amazing reality of that love.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!). – Ephesians 2:1-5 NLT

God loves, and so should we. This isn’t about an absence of murder, but the presence of hatred and a lack of love for others. A world devoid of murderers would not necessarily be a place marked by love. A decline in the crime rate does not reflect a change in the hearts of men. It is more likely a result of increased law enforcement. The law can enforce compliance, but cannot change the hearts of men. Consider what Paul wrote concerning his former relationship with God’s law.

I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! – Romans 7:7-8 NLT

Paul could try to refrain from coveting, but his heart would do everything in its power to disobey God’s law. Coveting could not be stopped by a law. It could only be controlled. The law can manage behavior, but it cannot change the motivation behind the behavior. A speed limit sign does not get rid of the desire to speed. It simply controls it by threatening punishment for disobedience. But fear is never the right motivation for obedience. It can force compliance, but it can never change the sinful disposition within.

Jesus came to change the hearts of men and women. He came to do what the law could never have done. Paul tells us the good news of what Jesus later accomplished by His death on the cross.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

Not only are we capable of refraining from committing murder, but we are also able to love one another. We can even love our enemies. Not in our own human strength, but because of the power of the Holy Spirit within us. We have the capacity to love as God has loved us.

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Bar Is Raised

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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:17-20 ESV

Jesus knows that what He is saying is going to be misunderstood and misconstrued by His hearers. He is well aware that the content of His message is going to sound controversial, even heretical to some. So, He takes just a few minutes to assure them that He is not promoting something contrary to their Scriptures, which is what He means by “the Law or the prophets.” His message was radical, but not in that sense. In fact, Jesus is about to show them that His words are well within the teaching of the Law, and His own life was a fulfillment of all the prophets had written. For Jesus, everything He had to say was based on a proper interpretation of Scripture and not in conflict with it.

Much of the opposition Jesus would face in His ministry would be due to a misunderstanding of the Scriptures on the part of the Jewish people. And their ignorance regarding their sacred writings was due to the teaching of their own religious leadership. Later on in His ministry, Jesus would confront the Jewish religious leaders – the scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the law – telling them, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life” (John 5:39-40 NLT). These men were renowned for their knowledge of God’s Word but were ignorant of its true meaning and content. Years later, Jesus would expose the Pharisees for their rampant abuse of God’s law.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” – Mark 7:6-8 NLT

For generations, these men had taken the Laws of God and interpreted them for their own benefit. They had twisted God’s words and added to them their own traditions and man-made laws designed to lessen God’s requirements. And as much as they may have known about the coming Messiah, they completely missed who Jesus was because He did not fit their interpretations and expectations. Years later, when Jesus had been resurrected and returned back to His Father’s side in heaven, Stephen would preach a powerful message to the Jews that would end up with his death by stoning.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” – Acts 7:51-53 NLT

So, Jesus assures His listeners that He is not contradicting the Word of God, He is actually fulfilling it. The Jews saw the Law as an end unto itself. In other words, it was their ability to keep the Law that brought them approval by God. They understood that their capacity to live up to God’s law was what brought them God’s blessings. So, they developed workarounds and loopholes to make compliance easier. Jesus would accuse them of this very thing.

“You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.” – Mark 7:9-13 NLT

The law was intended to point the people to their need for a Savior. The law was holy, righteous, and impossible to keep. All it could do was expose sin, not remove it. No man, no matter how knowledgeable he was of the law, could keep it perfectly. That is, until Jesus came. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee and an expert regarding the law, would make this point clear in his letter to the Galatians.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

Jesus claims that He did not come to abolish or do away with the law but to fulfill it. He didn’t come to refute what the prophets had said generations ago, but to bring about all that they had written. The Old Testament Scriptures, the Law and the prophets, pointed toward Jesus. They predicted His coming. They revealed the kind of life that God required, one that no ordinary man was capable of living. They showed the level of righteousness required for man to receive God’s approval. And Jesus, the Son of God, came to live that life and demonstrate that kind of righteousness in human flesh.

Taking a direct stab at the religious leaders in His audience, Jesus says, “So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19 NLT). In other words, if you attempt to diminish, dilute or alter God’s requirements in any way, you have no part in His Kingdom. Obedience was the key – perfect obedience.

“But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” – Matthew 5:19 NLT

Then Jesus drops the bombshell that had to have left the heads of those in His audience spinning in confusion and disappointment.

“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven! – Matthew 5:20 NLT

What? Was He kidding? Had He lost His mind? How in the world could anyone be more righteous than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees? These men were considered the spiritual elite of their day. They were the crème de la crème, the top dogs, the religious rock stars of Israel. But Jesus is speaking of a different kind of righteousness altogether. He is juxtaposing the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with the internal righteousness that He came to bring.

Jesus is speaking of a different kind of righteousness altogether. He is juxtaposing the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with the internal righteousness that He came to bring.

He is contrasting man-made righteousness with Spirit-produced righteousness, something that would be made possible after His death, resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s coming. He is eliminating any prospect of self-righteousness altogether and revealing that His righteousness alone, which is superior to that of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, is what can make men right with God. Jesus is referring to an alien righteousness, a righteousness that comes from outside of oneself.

There are two kinds of Christian righteousness… The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without.  This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies though faith… – Martin Luther, Two Kinds of Righteousness

The righteousness of man won’t gain God’s approval because it is insufficient. Once again, Paul reminds us:

For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die. – Galatians 2:21 NLT

And he elaborates on this very same point in his letter to the Romans:

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

The very next section of Jesus’ sermon is going to develop this idea of a superior righteousness. He is going to reveal that God’s requirements were more intense and demanding than His audience had ever dreamed. The kind of righteousness God required was unattainable by sinful men and women. Therefore, the list of blessings Jesus opened His sermon with was totally elusive and out of reach for the average Jew.

Or were they? This entire sermon is designed to set up what appears to be an irreconcilable problem, and then provide His audience with an unexpected solution. In fact, He will wrap up His sermon with these words:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” – Matthew 7:13-14 ESV

And later on in His ministry, Jesus will reveal exactly what He meant by the narrow gate.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 NLT

Attaining the blessings of God through human effort was impossible. Earning the approval of God through rule-keeping and self-discipline was not going to cut it. Even the religious leaders of Israel, with all their trappings of spiritual superiority, were wholly deficient in holiness – by God’s exacting standard. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, would later write: “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV).

But the good news was that God had sent His Son to be the Savior for all those who would recognize their sinfulness and relinquish any hope in their own self-righteousness.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Crisis of Identity

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:2-12 ESV

Before we dig into what Jesus is saying in these verses, take a close look at the list of those whom He refers to as approved by God:
…the poor in spirit
…those who mourn
…the meek
…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
…the merciful
…the pure in heart
…the peacemakers
…those persecuted for their righteousness
…those reviled, persecuted and slandered because of their association with Him

Now think about how His audience would have reacted to that list. Most, if not all, of those descriptions, would have been off-putting to his listeners. What would have been remotely attractive to these oppressed and, oftentimes, impoverished people about spiritual poverty? How in the world were they supposed to see mourning as a form of blessing from God? And within the culture and times during which they existed, meekness wasn’t exactly a handy asset. It got you nowhere and achieved nothing.

Then there’s his mention of hunger and thirst. For what was likely a crowd made up predominantly of farmers, shepherds, and other common laborers, the mention of hunger and thirst stirred up fairly negative connotations. They knew what it was like to suffer both and would not have viewed either as a blessing from God.

What about mercy? These were people living under the cruel and sometimes crushing rule of Rome. The Romans weren’t exactly known for being merciful, so what possible good could come out of showing mercy? And peacemaking wasn’t exactly an attractive option for Jesus’ listeners either. Peacemaking meant giving in and compromising with your enemy. Once again, the average Jew didn’t want peace with Rome, they wanted their destruction. For hundreds of years, ever since returning to the land of promise from captivity, the Jews had been without a king and at the mercy of virtually every nation that wanted to enslave them. They had become easy prey to anyone who wanted what they had. And the last thing they wanted was peace.

And how would they have reacted to His mention of purity of heart? For a people raised on the belief that a strict adherence to the Mosaic Law was their only hope, the idea of purity of heart would have been foreign. Theirs was a behavior-based society. You had to live up to certain rules, laws, and regulations. You had to keep the prescribed holy days, feasts, and festivals. You had to do what the law required. It was your outward actions that mattered most. The heart had nothing to do with it.

And then Jesus ends His list by bringing up persecution, reviling, and slander. In other words, He tells them that those who suffer for His sake will be approved by God. Now, would that have been great news to his listeners? Probably not. Persecution, reviling, and slander would have been the last things these people wanted to experience – for anybody’s sake.

Can you imagine the murmurs going through the crowd as Jesus spoke? Can’t you just see people in the crowd turning to one another with looks of confusion and even disgust? Who is this guy? What is He talking about? If He truly is a rabbi trying to attract followers, He isn’t getting off to a great start. Maybe He should give up public speaking and stick to doing miracles.

I believe there were many in the crowd that day who, after hearing Jesus’ opening remarks, began to have serious questions about not only His subject matter but His sanity. But He had their attention. And He was just getting started.

One of the things we must remember is that John the Baptist and Jesus both showed up on the scene preaching a message of repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). The Greek word for “repent” is metanoeō and it means “to change one’s mind for the better.” It entailed changing how you believed about things. We tend to think of repentance as turning from our sins and heading in another direction. But before you can turn from your sins, you have to have a change of mind regarding your sins. For the Jews in Jesus’ audience, they were going to have to experience a change of mind about everything from the Law and works to the kingdom of God, and who was qualified to be a citizen of it. They were going to have to change their minds about what it meant to be approved by God. And they had been indoctrinated by hundreds of years of teaching that taught them that they were the chosen people of God. They were the descendants of Abraham. And to receive the blessings of God, they simply had to obey the commands of God. But Jesus called them to repent. And now He was giving them an explanation of just exactly what their repentance or change of mind should look like.

First, they should be marked by poverty of spirit, a personal knowledge of their own spiritual bankruptcy. For a people who prided themselves on their status as God’s chosen people, this would have been difficult to hear and comprehend. But Jesus was telling them that, in order to be approved by God, they would first have to become conscious of their own unworthiness before God. Jesus would later tell the Pharisees, who took great pride in their spirituality, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do” (Matthew 9:12 NLT). It is not until we recognize our spiritual unworthiness that we will see our need for a Savior.

Jesus was telling them that, in order to be approved by God, they would first have to become conscious of their own unworthiness before God.

Next, Jesus mentions an attitude or mournfulness, a personal grief over personal sin. Paul will later refer to this as “godly grief.”

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. – 2 Corinthians 7:10 ESV

Our mournfulness stems from an awareness of our spiritual poverty. It is the emotional reaction to our impoverished standing before God. We react with sorrow, which leads us to salvation.

Jesus then mentions meekness, the controlled desire to see someone else’s interests advanced ahead of our own. Meekness is not weakness, it is a life of willing selflessness and sacrifice. It is the opposite of self-assertiveness and self-interest. In a world where everyone is out for themselves, Jesus was teaching that selflessness was what God was looking for in His people. And Jesus would go on to model this very characteristic throughout His life, all the way up to His selfless, sacrificial death on the cross.

Meekness is not weakness, it is life of willing selflessness and sacrifice. It is the opposite of self-assertiveness and self-interest.

When Jesus mentions a hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is speaking of having an insatiable desire for conformity to the will of God. Righteousness becomes the objective and our primary obsession. But righteousness on His terms, not ours. To hunger and thirst after righteousness is to desire a life lived in conformity to God’s will, not our own. It is a longing for life as He has planned it.

What about mercy? What is Jesus saying? Mercy is the gracious and generous response to the mercy we have received from God. We are to extend mercy to others because we have received mercy from God. And just as the mercy we received from Him was undeserved and unmerited, so we are to show mercy to those around us who have no right to it.

The Christian forgives because he has been forgiven; he forgives because he needs forgiveness. In precisely the same way, and for the same kind of reasons, the disciple of Jesus Christ is merciful. – D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

What does Jesus mean by purity of heart? Is He calling for perfection? The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT). So how can we be pure of heart? But Jesus has something else in mind here. When Jesus was later asked what the greatest commandment was, He responded:

“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” – Matthew 22:37 NLT

Purity of heart is not outward conformity to rules. The Greek word for “purity” is sometimes translated as “blameless.”  In the Old Testament, purity was associated with the idea of wholeness, completeness, or integrity. God called Abraham to walk before Him and to be blameless. We are to live our lives with integrity before God and man. It is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of our life. No compartmentalization. No holding back.

Purity of heart is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of our life. No compartmentalization. No holding back.

Again, the prophet, Jeremiah speaks of the heart.

“If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 29:13-14 NLT

Jesus is calling for a wholehearted desire for God, not just a half-hearted attempt to keep His laws. Obedience is possible without love, but that is not what God requires or desires. In fact, later on in His ministry, Jesus would quote from the prophet, Isaiah, in order to make a point to the Pharisees and religious leaders.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-9 NLT

Peacemaking is ultimately the desire for reconciliation between God and man. It has less to do with being at peace with those around me, than desiring that they have peace with God. And this desire will come from having been made right with God ourselves. The apostle Paul will later write, “Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us” (Romans 5:1 NLT). And he will go on to say, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19 NLT).

Peacemaking is ultimately the desire for reconciliation between God and man. It has less to do with being at peace with those around me, than desiring that they have peace with God.

We prove our status as sons of God by seeking what God desires: reconciliation between God and man. Once again, Paul provides us with insight into what Jesus is saying:

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. – Romans 12:17-19 NLT

Finally, Jesus speaks of persecution, reviling, and slander. But His primary point is that those who are approved by God had a future focus that sees them through present suffering. Jesus would later tell His disciples:

“If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.” – John 15:18-19 NLT

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33 NLT

We can endure suffering in this life because we are confident of Jesus’ promises regarding the next life. As Paul reminds us, “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later” (Romans 8:18 NLT).

All of this was difficult to hear and even harder to comprehend. Remember, these people were on the opposite side of the cross from us. Jesus had not yet died. He had not yet been resurrected. He was speaking of life made possible by His death, burial, and resurrection. He was describing a life available only through faith in His sacrificial death and empowered by His indwelling Holy Spirit. But He was preparing them for what was to come. It was not what they were expecting, but it was exactly what they needed.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Truly Blessed

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:2-12 ESV

Jesus wastes no time. Once the crowd has taken their seats in front of Him, He jumps right into His lecture, and begins with what has come to be known as the “beatitudes.”  This portion of His message derives its name from the repetitive use of the word “blessed” that appears at the beginning of each line. The Greek word for blessed in the original text of Matthew’s gospel is makarios. In the Latin Vulgate, the word is beati, which is derived from the Latin beatitudo/beatus. Therefore, the name of this section of Jesus’ message became known as “The Beatitudes.”

In order to fully understand what Jesus was saying, we must know what He meant by using the word “blessed.”  There is no doubt that it has a positive connotation. To be blessed was a good thing. But what kind of blessing did Jesus have in mind? We tend to use the word quite loosely and indiscriminately. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say something like, “He’s been blessed with good genes” or “Grandchildren are such a blessing.” From our perspective, we can be blessed by good health, a new job, a strong constitution, a loving spouse, and good friends.

Even in Jesus’ day, the word carried the connotation of being “supremely blest; by extension, fortunate, well off” (“G3107 – makarios – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 21 Apr, 2017). The problem we face in reading The Beatitudes is applying our definition or understanding of what it means to be blessed and missing out on what Jesus was actually saying. Our natural tendency, just like the 1st-Century Jews sitting in Jesus’ audience that day, is to think that the blessings to which He refers are purely physical in nature and apply to our personal prosperity and happiness. But Jesus had something far more significant in mind.

Our natural tendency is to think that the blessings to which He refers are purely physical in nature and apply to our personal prosperity and happiness. But Jesus had something far more significant in mind.

Warren Wiersbe states that the blessing to which Jesus referred is “an inner satisfaction and sufficiency that does not depend on outward circumstances for happiness.” So, while we might connote blessing with personal prosperity and a lack of problems, Jesus was speaking of something entirely different. The root idea behind blessing is approval. God does not bless that which He does not approve. If you take the full context of Jesus’ message, it becomes clear that He is teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven and the character of those who belong to it. In essence, He is teaching about justification; how to be made right or approved by God. In the very next section, Jesus will bring up the Mosaic law. Why? Because for the Jews in His audience, the Law had always been the sole requirement for attaining a right standing with God. It was through the keeping of the Law that man attempted to gain God’s approval or blessing.

All the way back in the book of Deuteronomy, we have recorded the words spoken by Moses to the people of Israel on behalf of God.

“Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. For I command you this day to love the Lord your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy.” – Deuteronomy 30:15-16 NLT

They were to live in obedience to the commands of God. If they did so, they would be blessed by God. If they refused to do so, they would be cursed. In the previous chapter, Moses made clear just what the blessing He promised would entail.

“You are standing here today to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God. The Lord is making this covenant, including the curses. By entering into the covenant today, he will establish you as his people and confirm that he is your God, just as he promised you and as he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 29:12-13 NLT

By obeying God, they would enjoy the approval and presence of God. They would know what it was like to have His protection and to experience His provision. The curses would be the result of having lost that relationship. But the Jews had ended up placing a higher value on the material blessings they enjoyed than on God’s approval. The idea that the God of the universe approved of them was less important to them than the personal prosperity they enjoyed as God’s people. And this misunderstanding of the blessing of God had resulted in them turning the Law into a means to an end. They tried to keep the Law in an effort to keep God happy so that He would keep blessing them with the things that kept them happy. He had become nothing more to them than a conduit to more important things: health, happiness, material goods, crops, children, peace, long life, or whatever else they desired.

They tried to keep the Law in an effort to keep God happy, so that He would keep blessing them with the things that kept them happy.

So, here comes Jesus, preaching a radically different message of what it means to be truly blessed by God. And what He said must have rocked the world of His listeners. Much to their shock and dismay, He tied the blessing of God to such things as poverty, mourning, meekness, deprivation, and persecution. He talked about heavenly rewards versus earthly ones. He commanded His listeners to rejoice when they were persecuted, to turn the other cheek when they were slapped, to willingly go the second mile, to love their enemies, and to give to those who ask to borrow, expecting no payment in return.

None of this would have made sense to His listeners. None of it would have sounded the least bit appealing. In the mind of the average Jew, it was the wealthy who were blessed by God, while the sick and the lame were cursed by God. They believed material prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing, so poverty must be a curse.

But what Jesus says in this passage turns the tables on that kind of thinking. A great deal of His message is in direct contradiction to their skewed understanding of the Law and what they believed was necessary to be right with God. They tied proof of righteousness (a right relationship with God) to outward signs of His blessing. But Jesus was going to blow up that presupposition. He was going to go to the heart of the issue – literally. Because Jesus was out to change the hearts of men. With His coming, the days were finished when men would be able to judge their righteousness based on outward evidence.

God looks at the heart. And Jesus came to die so that men’s hearts might be redeemed, and their behavior radically changed. What Jesus describes in this passage is a new way of living, based not on human effort, but on divine empowerment.

What Jesus describes in this passage is a new way of living, based not on human effort, but on divine empowerment.

He is speaking to a pre-cross crowd, explaining to them a post-cross reality. He knows something to which they are oblivious. He recognizes that all He is saying to them is not only impossible for them to understand, but impossible to pull off until He has died, been resurrected, and the Holy Spirit comes. His words are preparatory in nature. He is expanding on His previous message of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV).

Things were about to change. The Messiah had come. The Savior of the world was in their midst. And the means by which men might be made right with God, permanently and perfectly, had finally arrived. But before anyone could accept what Jesus had come to provide, they would have to recognize their need. And Matthew later records Jesus’ offer of the Great Invitation:

Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 NLT

The Sermon on the Mount is not intended to be a new list of laws, rules, and requirements for people to follow in order to gain God’s approval. It is a glimpse into the lifestyle of those who will find their approval by God through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. It is a pre-cross explanation of how right behavior will flow from having a right relationship with God made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus for the sins of mankind. The key message behind the Sermon on the Mount is the approval of God. And Jesus is in the process of helping His audience understand that right behavior stems from having a right relationship with God, not the other way around.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Kingdom Is At Hand

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them… Matthew 5:1 ESV

It was Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, who first referred to this text as the Sermon on the Mount. But that title is somewhat of a misnomer, in that the content and the context appear to make it much more of a teaching than what we would know as a sermon. Obviously, the setting is outdoors, on a hillside located at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. It is early on in Jesus’ ministry, and yet, we know from chapter four, that Jesus has already begun attracting vast crowds.

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. – Matthew 4:23-25 ESV

Those who made up the audience sitting on the hillside that day to listen to Jesus speak were made up of all kinds of people from all over the area. And within the crowd would have been disciples or followers of Jesus. This term was not exclusively used of the 12 but was commonly used to refer to any and all who followed Jesus and were attracted to His message and miracles. As John will make clear in his gospel, many of these individuals would later choose to abandon Jesus when His message became increasingly more convicting and the price of discipleship, more costly (John 6:66).

Also in the crowd that day were the men whom Jesus called to be His official students. Chapter four reveals how Jesus had called two brothers: Simon (Peter) and Andrew, as well as another two siblings: James and John. All four of them were common fishermen. But when Jesus extended the invitation to join His ranks as His disciples, they all willingly followed. These four were accompanied by Nathanael and Philip, who had also responded affirmatively to Jesus’ invitation, “Follow me.”

Another group that listened to Jesus teach that day were the merely curious. They probably made up the largest contingent within the crowd. These were people who were enamored with Jesus’ miracles and intrigued by what He taught, but, for the most part, were attracted by the novelty of it all. So, as Jesus sat down to teach, He found an audience made up of the called, the semi-committed and the curious. And it is essential to keep these three groups in mind as we listen to Jesus’s words because each of them will have a slightly different take on what He has to say.

The danger we face in reading a passage like this one is to do so from our modern vantage point and with our unique perspective as modern believers who know how the story ends. In other words, we have insights the people in Jesus’ audience would not have had. We know about His death, burial and resurrection. We are well aware of the Holy Spirit and the role He plays in helping us live out the Christian life. We know that our salvation is based on faith alone in Christ alone, and not on words or human effort. We also know that our ongoing sanctification is based on faith, as well. We can’t make ourselves more holy. We must depend upon the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the Word of God.

So, when we read the Sermon on the Mount, we hear it with redeemed ears. We are privy to insider information that the original hearers would not have had. They were not yet sure who Jesus really was. Some would have thought Him to be the Messiah, but they would have been few in number. Even the men whom Jesus called likely had some doubts and reservations about Jesus’ identity. Yes, when Philip had told Nathanael about his encounter with Jesus, he had seemed fairly convinced of who He was.

“We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” – John 1:45 ESV

And it was Nathanael who, upon meeting Jesus for the first time, responded, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49 ESV). But at this point in their relationship with Jesus, these men were still wrestling with what they believed about the Messiah and what they saw in Jesus. There were points of disconnection and discontinuity. Not all they saw about Jesus was matching up with their expectations concerning the coming Messiah.

It would be sometime later that Jesus would ask them who the people believed Him to be. And they would respond, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say you are one of the other ancient prophets risen from the dead” (Luke 9:19 NLT). So, at this point, early on in His ministry, there would have been much confusion and speculation about His true identity. And that point will make what He has to say in this sermon that much more critical.

How would they have heard His message? What kind of impact would His words have made on them? The challenge we face when reading this all-too-familiar passage is to not allow our status as modern, 21st-Century Christians to taint or influence the message. Because we know how the story ends, we can have the unfortunate tendency to remove from Jesus’ words all their power and revolutionary nature. What Jesus had to say that day in that bucolic setting was radical and unheard of. His teachings would have grated on the ears of his listeners, kike fingers on a blackboard, causing them great confusion and raising all kinds of questions in their minds.

For too many of us, because of over-familiarity, His words have long ago lost their power. The radical, counter-cultural calling found in the words of Jesus no longer has the same impact as it did the day He spoke it. It is almost as if we know too much. Our privileged insights into the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, His death, and resurrection, have robbed what He had to say that day of its intended impact and shocking significance.

The challenge is to read the Sermon on the Mount with fresh eyes. To the best of your ability, get into the mindset of someone hearing His words for the very first time. In fact, try to hear them like a 1st-Century Jew. It is important to remember that even the disciples of Jesus were not yet technically believers. They had not heard all of His teachings. They knew nothing about His impending death. They were unaware of His eventual resurrection. He had not yet told them about the future coming of the Holy Spirit. No one in the audience would have known what we know. So, listen to His words from their perspective. Hear what they would have heard. Allow yourself to be shocked by the radical nature of what He said and how it would have dramatically altered your concepts of life, religion, relationships, and God.

Everything these people knew to be true was about to be turned on its head. All they had been taught and had learned to lean on as reliable, right, and non-negotiable, was about to get rocked. There would be no mind-blowing miracles performed, no demons cast out, or lame people healed. That hillside was not going to be some carnival sideshow, but a classroom. And the subject was going to be the kingdom of heaven. For the very first time, Jesus was going to expand on what He and John the Baptist had been preaching. Both of them had been declaring, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). Now, Jesus was going to begin explaining what life in the kingdom was to be like. And it was going to be more mind-blowing then any miracle He could have performed. This was going to be radical stuff.

Jesus is going to teach that persecution and poverty bring blessing, that lust carries the same penalty as adultery, anger is equivalent to murder, enemies are to be loved, and reconciliation trumps revenge or retaliation. He is going to demand a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. And any righteous acts done in order to get noticed don’t count. He’s going to outlaw worrying and judging. He’s going to require that his audience put the needs of others ahead of their own, including their enemies. And to top it all off, Jesus is going to demand fruitfulness. Oh, and as if that were not enough, He throws in a life of perfection for good measure.

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:48 ESV

It all sounds impossible. And it is. It all sounds so radical. And it was. So much so, that over the years, there have been many who have decided that Jesus’ words were never intended to be followed. They have concluded that this message was speaking of some future time when sin would be eliminated, and men enjoyed a perfection made possible by God. In other words, they believe Jesus’ words that day were a prophetic message concerning His future Millennial Kingdom.

But while there is some truth to this notion, I don’t believe Jesus would have said all that He did if there were not some expectation on His part that obedience to these commands was not only possible but non-negotiable. The key to understanding what Jesus was teaching is to realize the impossible nature of it all. Like the Law of Moses, Jesus’ words were exposing the inability of men to live up to the holy standards of God’s Kingdom. Jesus was not teaching a new set of rules or requirements in order for men to be made right with God. He was teaching a new way of life that was possible only by the power of God. The righteousness Jesus was demanding was not to be self-made but Spirit-produced. The behavior that He was expecting would not be the result of human effort, but divine power.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus had told the people the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Now Jesus is going to explain what life in that kingdom was to look like.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Called and the Curious

18 While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. – Matthew 4:18-25 ESV

With John the Baptist having been arrested by Herod, Jesus picked up where John left off, continuing to declare the same prophetic message concerning the kingdom of heaven.

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:17 ESV

The phrase, “from that time” is used twice by Matthew, and in each instance, it indicates a major shift in the ministry of Jesus. Here it reveals that Jesus was making His ministry much more public than before. It is not that Jesus had been silent up to this point, but that His efforts became much more visible and aimed at a larger audience. He was moving from relative obscurity to increasing notoriety.

And one of the first things Jesus did was begin the process of selecting the men who would be His disciples. It was a common practice among the Jews for a rabbi or teacher to gather students or disciples who would align themselves with him in order to sit under his teaching. These individuals were known as mathētēs, a Greek word that means “pupil” or “learner.”

Matthew’s account of the selection of the two brothers, Simon (Peter) and Andrew, seems to conflict with that of John in his Gospel. There, John records that Jesus first met Simon and Andrew before John the Baptist was arrested. It seems that Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist and had heard him refer to Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (John 1:36 ESV). Upon hearing this news, Andrew and another one of the disciples of John the Baptist had spent the day talking to Jesus. When they had finished, Andrew made a beeline to his brother, Simon, in order to tell him what he had discovered.

One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). – John 1:40-42 ESV

Yet, Matthew paints a somewhat different picture, describing Jesus as encountering and calling Andrew and Simon while they were fishing along the Sea of Galilee. But this seeming contradiction can easily be explained. It is clear from John’s account that Jesus had previously met these two men. But there is no calling mentioned by John. He only indicates that Jesus gave Simon a new nickname: Cephas, which means, “Peter.” So, Matthew is simply picking up the story at a later point when Jesus met these two brothers a second time. He found them casting their nets into the sea, a common occupation by many who lived in the region. And it was at this point that Jesus issued His official invitation to Simon and Andrew to become His disciples: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19 ESV).

According to John’s Gospel, Simon and Andrew would join Philip and Nathanael, whom Jesus had already included in His growing list of disciples (John 1:43-51). To each of these men, Jesus issued a call to follow Him. To Simon and Andrew, He explained the radical change this call would have on their chosen occupation.  From now on, their fishing would be for men. It is unlikely that this statement made sense to these two brothers when they heard it, but Matthew indicates that they didn’t hesitate to accept Jesus’ invitation. “Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Matthew 4:20 ESV). John’s account of Andrew’s initial encounter with Jesus makes what appears to be a somewhat knee-jerk response by these two men more plausible. After His first meeting with Jesus, Andrew had become convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, and had told his brother, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ)” (John 1:41 ESV). So, the fact that Andrew and Simon walked away from their nets and followed Jesus was due to their belief that Jesus truly was the long-awaited Messiah.

And John records that Nathanael had been blown away by his initial encounter with Jesus, declaring his revelation with the words, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49 ESV). These men were not just dropping everything to follow some obscure rabbi they had just met. They were aligning themselves with the one they believed to be the Son of God and the future King of Israel. They had high hopes.

And Matthew indicates that Jesus added two more men to His team when He extended the same invitation to two more brothers, James and John. They, too, were fishermen, and Luke indicates that they were business partners with Simon (Luke 5:10). And they had been eyewitnesses to a miracle that Jesus had performed.

One day as Jesus was preaching on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, great crowds pressed in on him to listen to the word of God. He noticed two empty boats at the water’s edge, for the fishermen had left them and were washing their nets. Stepping into one of the boats, Jesus asked Simon, its owner, to push it out into the water. So he sat in the boat and taught the crowds from there.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Now go out where it is deeper, and let down your nets to catch some fish.”

“Master,” Simon replied, “we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so, I’ll let the nets down again.” And this time their nets were so full of fish they began to tear! A shout for help brought their partners in the other boat, and soon both boats were filled with fish and on the verge of sinking.

When Simon Peter realized what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Oh, Lord, please leave me—I’m such a sinful man.” For he was awestruck by the number of fish they had caught, as were the others with him. His partners, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were also amazed. – Luke 5:1-10 NLT

This initial encounter with Jesus explains why these two men were so ready and willing to accept the invitation from Jesus and immediately leave their boats and their father behind in order to follow this miracle-working man who claimed to be the Messiah of Israel.

And Matthew summarizes the early ministry of Jesus by stating: “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matthew 4:23 ESV). Simon, Andrew, Nathanael, Philip, James, and John were all given a first-hand view of the remarkable power and wisdom of Jesus. Their initial experience as His disciples were a whirlwind of miraculous healings and messages regarding the coming kingdom. It was a lot to take in.

These simple men had to have been blown away by what they saw. Everywhere they went, Jesus was attracting huge crowds. People were bringing the sick and the lame in order to receive healing from Jesus. The groundswell of support from the people had to have encouraged them. They were witnessing a revolution taking place. And they had to have thought how lucky they were to have aligned themselves with Jesus. They were His disciples, and they were going to benefit from their close association with Him. Or so they thought. When they saw the great crowds that followed them “from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 4:25 ESV), they must have assumed that it would not be long before Jesus had the numbers He needed to make His way into Jerusalem to claim His rightful place as the King of Israel. And, as His closest associates, they were bound to enjoy a place at His side.

But what we see here is a case of man’s misperception of Jesus’ ministry and message. There were many who followed Him because He performed miracles. They were curious to see this man who could heal the sick, cast out demons, give sight to the blind, and restore the ability to walk to the lame. Others were attracted to His messages regarding the kingdom. They were anxious for someone, anyone, to rid them of the oppressive rule of the Romans. Jesus was not the first person to give the people hope that the Messiah had arrived. But maybe He was the real deal.

And James, John, Simon, Andrews, Nathanael, and Philip had accepted the call of Jesus, but their motives had been all over the map. Perhaps they saw it as a chance to leave behind their dead-end occupation as fishermen. Or, believing as Nathanael did, that Jesus was the Son of God and the King of Israel, they probably thought they were getting in on the ground floor of an exciting opportunity.

These early days of Jesus’ ministry were filled with wonder, excitement, and awe. There was a great deal of enthusiasm associated with His growing reputation. But it would not be long before His fame turned to infamy. His popularity would end up polarizing Him from the religious leaders of the day. His miracles would attract crowds and raise the suspicions of the Pharisees and scribes. And the very next section of Matthew’s Gospel will outline Jesus’ message to the people, His Sermon on the Mount, that will describe what life will look like in His Kingdom. It will be an eye-opening, game-changing, paradigm-shifting introduction into the gospel message He came to deliver and the impossible lifestyle He came to make possible.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Morning Light From Heaven

12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
    the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people dwelling in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
    on them a light has dawned.”

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:12-17 ESV

Once again, it seems that Matthew fast-forwards his account of the life of Jesus, skipping over about a years worth of ministry. A comparison with John’s Gospel reveals that not long after His baptism and temptation, Jesus had made His way to Galilee (John 1:19-2:12), where He began His public ministry. But then He returned to Judea in order to attend the Passover in Jerusalem (John 2:13-3:21). John reveals that sometime after Passover, Jesus made His way into the Judean wilderness, where He performed baptisms, just as John had been doing.

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison). – John 3:22-24 ESV

After this brief time in the Judean wilderness, Jesus and His disciples made their way through the region of Samaria, where Jesus encountered the woman at the well (John 3:22-4:42). It was after this that they returned to Galilee, and this is the point at which Matthew picks up the story.

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. – Matthew 4:12 ESV

It seems rather significant that Matthew would choose to begin His recounting of Jesus’ earthly ministry with the arrest of John the Baptist. The arrest and imprisonment of this well-known cult figure would have been the talk of all Judea. If you recall, John had amassed quite a following.

Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Matthew 3:5-6 ESV

Even the religious leaders of the Jews had been showing up in the Judean wilderness, seeking to be baptized by John. So, his arrest would have caused quite a stir, especially when you consider the reasons behind it.

…it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. – Mark 6:17-20 ESV

This has all the trappings of a modern soap opera script. Herod had married his brother’s wife, and John had called him out on it in public. And while Herod had a healthy fear of John, Herodias wanted him silenced. So, Herod had him imprisoned. And this is the point at which Matthew picks up the story. But why?

The apostle John provides us with at least a partial answer, and he does so by relaying the words of John the Baptist himself.

At this time John the Baptist was baptizing at Aenon, near Salim, because there was plenty of water there; and people kept coming to him for baptism. (This was before John was thrown into prison.) A debate broke out between John’s disciples and a certain Jew over ceremonial cleansing. So John’s disciples came to him and said, “Rabbi, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River, the one you identified as the Messiah, is also baptizing people. And everybody is going to him instead of coming to us.”

John replied, “No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” – John 3:23-30 NLT

It’s unlikely that  John the Baptist knew the prophetic nature of his words. He fully understood that Jesus was the Messiah and that his own role was subordinate and subservient. He knew his job had been to prepare the way for the anointed one. Yet, when John the Baptist found himself in jail and heard all that Jesus was doing, he seemed to have second thoughts or at least some doubts about Jesus’ actions.

John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” – Matthew 11:2-3 NLT

Perhaps John was a bit surprised and disappointed that Jesus was not displaying the characteristics of a Messiah. Like the rest of the Jews of his day, John may have been expecting a slightly more regal demeanor from the long-anticipated Messiah. But Jesus seemed to be doing the very same things John had done before His arrest. He was even preaching the very same message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV).

But the arrest of John the Baptist provided an immediate end to his ministry. He was removed from the scene, and his followers would now be forced to choose between following him or Jesus. John had performed his role faithfully and well. He had done what he had been sent to do. Now, the focus was shifting from the preparatory work of John the Baptist, who heralded the coming King, to the King Himself. The Messiah had come.

And Matthew records that this inaugural phase of Jesus’ ministry was accompanied by a change in ministry headquarters.

And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali… – Matthew 4:12 ESV

Once again, Matthew wastes no time in linking the details of Jesus’ life with the Old Testament prophecies that told of a miraculous future for the nation of Israel. He picks up a key passage found in the writings of Isaiah and associates it with Jesus’ decision to relocate His ministry headquarters to Capernaum.

Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory.

The people who walk in darkness
    will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
    a light will shine. – Isaiah 9:1-2 NLT

And the apostle John would recognize and relate this prophetic link between Jesus and the light.

The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. – John 1:9 NLT

And Jesus would pick up this theme, describing Himself in terms that reflect His understanding of His prophetic mission.

“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” – John 8:12 NLT

“I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark.” – John 12:46 NLT

But Jesus provides a sobering assessment of the world’s response to His arrival.

“God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.” – John 3:19 NLT

The Light of the world had come, but the residents of the world preferred the darkness over the Light. And Jesus makes it clear that there will be those who will run from the Light out of fear of having their sins exposed. But there will be others who will find life in the Light invigorating and liberating.

All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.” – John 3:20 NLT

In a sense, John the Baptist’s light was fading. His job was complete, and now it was time for Jesus to shine. Even Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, had been given a Spirit-inspired insight into his son’s future role. At the news of his son’s birth, Zechariah had prophesied:

“And you, my little son,
    will be called the prophet of the Most High,
    because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
You will tell his people how to find salvation
    through forgiveness of their sins.
Because of God’s tender mercy,
    the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    and to guide us to the path of peace.” – Luke 1:76-79 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Tempted Like Us

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
    and him only shall you serve.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. – Matthew 4:1-11 ESV

Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus is not just a retelling of the details surrounding the event. He has an ulterior motive, and it is the same one he has had from the moment he began His Gospel. Matthew intends to support Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah, and the rightful King of Israel.

Immediately after His baptism by John, Jesus heard the following words from His Father in heaven: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 ESV). God Himself acknowledges the deity of Jesus, presenting Him as His own Son and expressing His pleasure or satisfaction with Him. The descent of the Holy Spirit onto Jesus, in the visible form of a dove, was a sign of God’s approval of Him. And it was the Spirit who led Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1 ESV). And Luke adds that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1 ESV). The Son of God was filled with the Spirit of God. And this indwelling by the Spirit would allow Jesus to model the very lifestyle His death and resurrection would make it possible for all those who would eventually place their faith in Him. The same helper, comforter, and advocate who assisted Him in His earthly ministry would be available to all who became His followers.

And we should not overlook the fact that the Spirit of God led the Son of God from the banks of the Jordan into the Judean wilderness. This one who had allowed Himself to be baptized by John to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15), and who had received the approval of God, was now being led into the desolate wilderness. Why? Matthew provides us with the answer: “…to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1 ESV).

It is easy to miss the weight of those words. But it is essential that we understand what is happening in this scene. Jesus, the Son of God, who had just received the full approval of God, was led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness and for one solitary purpose: To be tempted by Satan. This is the one of whom John said: “he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (Luke 3:16 ESV). This is the one to whom God declared, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22 ESV). And yet, He is being led by the Holy Spirit into an encounter with Satan, whose very name means “adversary.”

This entire scene appears incongruous to us. It seems strange that God would send His own Son, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, into the wilderness to endure starvation and temptation at the hands of the enemy. Why would God willingly put His Son through such an ordeal? But that begs the question, why would God send His Son to die in the place of undeserving sinners? The temptation of Jesus was just one part of the divine agenda that God the Father had put in place before the foundation of the world. Peter reminds us that “God chose him [Jesus] as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake” (1 Peter 1:20 NLT).

Jesus came to this earth in the form of a man, and in that form, He would suffer and endure many trials and temptations, just as we do. The author of Hebrews describes Jesus as our High Priest, who “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15 NLT). Jesus took on human flesh, so that He might be the second and final Adam, the one who would live in perfect obedience to God, through the power of the indwelling Spirit of God. And the apostle Paul reminds us of the ramifications of Adam’s disobedience and Jesus’ obedience.

For just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man [Jesus] many will be made righteous. – Romans 5:19 NLT

Jesus had to be tempted and tested. He had to suffer and endure deprivations of all kinds. In order for Him to understand our weaknesses, He had to experience them for Himself. And the very first days of His earthly ministry were going to test whether He would continue to bring pleasure to His heavenly Father. Would He continue to fulfill all righteousness?

And you can sense that Satan had a strategy in mind. The temptations he threw at Jesus were well-planned and designed with Him in mind. And notice that Satan began his attacks by raising questions regarding Jesus’ identity.

“If you are the Son of God…” – Matthew 4:3 ESV

He had used a similar strategy with Eve in the Garden of Eden. He had begun his temptation of her with the words, “Did God actually say…?” He raised doubts concerning the word of God. He wanted Eve to doubt the fairness and faithfulness of God.

In his temptation of Jesus, Satan wasn’t trying to get Him to doubt His identity as the Son of God. He wanted Jesus to doubt God’s plans concerning His role as the Son of God. It had been God’s plans from the beginning that Jesus would suffer and die. Don’t forget what Peter said: “God chose him [Jesus] as your ransom long before the world began.” Suffering was part of God’s plan for His Son, and Jesus knew it. He would later state, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 28:20 NLT). Jesus knew who He was, but He also knew why He had come. But Satan tried to get Jesus to consider a different way. He was offering Jesus an alternative plan.

And he began by appealing to Jesus’ physical needs. Matthew makes it clear that “after fasting forty days and forty nights, he [Jesus] was hungry” (Matthew 4:2 ESV). So, as Satan is so prone to do, he aimed his first salvo at this apparent point of weakness.

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” – Matthew 4:3 ESV

Satan was not questioning the identity of Jesus. He was attempting to get Jesus to operate outside of His God-ordained identity. In a sense, Satan wanted Jesus to prove who He was, but in a way that was not in keeping with God’s will. Satan’s appeal was aimed at what he knew was the human propensity for selfishness and self-centeredness. He wanted Jesus to use His divine power to meet His own needs. But that is not God’s plan for His Son. Jesus had been sent to serve others. He had been sent to offer His life as a ransom for many, not to use His divine powers and prerogatives to meet His own needs. And Jesus responded to the temptation by reminding Satan that obedience to the word of God was far more fulfilling than bread could ever be.

Years later, the disciples would offer Jesus food to eat, and He would respond, “I have a kind of food you know nothing about” (John 4:32 NLT). And He would clarify His statement with the words: ““My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work” (John 4:34 NLT). Jesus was committed to doing the will of His Father, and He found obedience to be far more fulfilling than anything this world has to offer.

The second temptation was a poorly designed attempt to fast-track God’s plan for Jesus’ future glorification. Jesus had been sent by God to die on behalf of sinful mankind. And it would not be until after He had suffered and died, that Jesus would be raised to new life and experience the glorification God had planned for Him. But, once again, Satan offered an alternative plan.

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ – Matthew 4:6 ESV

Satan wanted Jesus to skip the part of God’s plan that involved dying and instead to focus on self-preservation and premature glorification.

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” – Matthew 4:7 ESV

But Jesus saw through Satan’s ploy and knew this was less a test of Himself, than it would be a test of God. For Jesus to do as Satan said would have been a blatant testing of God’s will. Would He alter His plan by sending His angels to save His Son from an unplanned threat to His life that was outside of His will? Jesus was not about to test His heavenly Father. He knew the plan, and He was not going to deviate from it.

Finally, Satan offered Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Matthew 4:8 ESV). What is going on here? First of all, Satan had the right to offer these things to Jesus because of his position as the prince or ruler of this world (John 14:30 ESV). The apostle John states: “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19 ESV). So, in a sense, Satan had to authority to offer Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, but he failed to understand that any authority he possessed had been given to him by God. He ruled and reigned by divine fiat. And, whether he realized it or not, Satan was offering Jesus what was already rightfully His.

But Jesus wasn’t fooled by or remotely interested in the offer made by Satan. He saw it nothing more than a thinly veiled ploy by Satan to get Him to commit spiritual adultery. Satan wanted Jesus to worship him rather than God. And in exchange for His betrayal of God the Father, Satan was offering Jesus that which already belonged to Him: the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He had nothing to give Jesus that was not already His. And Jesus let Satan know that worship of God and obedience to the will of God was His highest priority. He needed nothing else.

And with that, the temptations came to an abrupt halt. But Satan was far from finished. He had not given up. Luke tells us, “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13 ESV). The battle had just begun. The Son of God had arrived on the scene, and the spiritual war was about to go to a whole new level.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Messiah Has Come!

1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:1-10 ESV

Matthew has an agenda and he wastes no time on anything that will not support his overall objective. His primary interest is to establish Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, and so, after providing an abbreviated overview of Jesus’ birth, Matthew fast-forwards to His baptism and the beginning of His earthly ministry.

In keeping with his more truncated and sparse narrative style, Matthew provides little details regarding the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. Luke’s Gospel contains a much-more detailed account of this seminal character, providing information about his birth, unique lifestyle, and the nature of his God-given assignment to prepare the way for Jesus.

But Matthew eliminates all the background information regarding John the Baptist, introducing him into the narrative in a somewhat abrupt and jarring manner. Matthew fast-forwards from the news that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had settled in Galilee and brings us to a future point in time when John was baptizing somewhere in the Judean wilderness. He makes no effort to explain who John was, but simply gives us a description of his work and his wardrobe.

John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea – Matthew 3:1 ESV

John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. – Matthew 3:4 ESV

It’s fairly clear that Matthew saw John as a supporting character in the story. He was vital to the narrative but played a clearly subordinate role to that of Jesus. And John the Baptist had been fully comfortable with his secondary status, having recognized the divine nature of Jesus’ ministry and mission. The apostle John records the words that John the Baptist spoke to his disciples when they expressed concern that Jesus was also baptizing in the Jordan and drawing large crowds.

“You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.

He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.“ – John 3:28-31 ESV

Once again, Matthew sees the events surrounding the life of Jesus as fulfilling the words of Scripture. He refers to John the Baptist “preaching in the wilderness of Judea” and calling the people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:1 ESV). And these actions by John were in direct fulfillment of a message delivered by Isaiah hundreds of years earlier.

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” – Isaiah 40:3 ESV

John had been sent by God to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. He had delivered his message of repentance, warning that the Kingdom of Heaven was near. The long-awaited Messiah was about to reveal Himself.

In his Gospel, Mark shares that John “appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4 ESV). But what was this “baptism of repentance?” What exactly were these people repenting of? And why was John attracting such large crowds?

Some of John’s attraction might be linked to his rather strange attire and bizarre lifestyle. Matthew describes him as wearing “a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist” and subsisting off a diet of “locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4 ESV). John’s attire linked him with the Old Testament prophet, Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). After the last Old Testament prophet spoke his final words, God went silent for 400-years. There were no prophets. There was no communication from God. And then, suddenly, John the Baptist shows up on the scene, bearing a striking resemblance to Elijah and reminding the people of the words spoken by God to the prophet, Micah, hundreds of years earlier.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

John was the fulfillment of this prophetic promise. He came in the spirit of Elijah, accomplishing the same prophetic ministry as his Old Testament predecessor. And God had promised Zechariah,  the father of John, that all of this would take place.

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:13-17 ESV

Once again, Matthew is establishing Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. And John the Baptist was sent to prepare for his arrival by calling the people to repentance. But as we asked earlier, what kind of repentance? The Greek word for “repentance” is metanoeō and it means “to change one’s mind.” We tend to think of repentance as exclusively linked to behavior, but it has a much more robust and all-encompassing meaning. Repentance begins, first and foremost, in the mind, not the actions. John was calling the people of Israel to change their minds about everything. They were going to have to radically change their minds about God. They had developed a warped perspective about Yahweh that had allowed them to treat Him with a bit too much familiarity. They were going to have to change their minds regarding righteousness. They were living under the false impression that their status as descendants of Abraham and their relationship with the Mosaic Law made them righteous. But all of that was about to change. They were going to have to change their mind about sin and the means by which the sinner is made right with a holy God. The sacrificial system had never been intended to make anyone righteous.

Years later, the apostle Paul asked the question: “Why, then, was the law given?” and then he answered his own question: “It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). And now, here was John letting the people know that the child who was promised had arrived. He was now a 30-year-old man and, as John would later describe Him, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NLT).

But John’s ministry included proclamation and immersion. He baptized, which is how he got his nickname, John the Baptist. John was calling the people to prepare for spiritual restoration. The anointed one of God had arrived and they were going to have to confess their sins and prepare their hearts for what God had in store. Just as the prophet, Elijah, had called the Jews of his day to repentance, so was John. The Israelites were guilty of spiritual complacency and, at worst, apostasy. And God had graciously sent His messenger, John, to call them back.

But when John saw the religious leaders showing up to be baptized, he accused them of hypocrisy.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” – Matthew 3:8 ESV

They were simply going through the motions, attempting to align themselves with the large crowds that John was attracting. But John’s baptism was intended to reveal the heart of the one being baptized. It was a baptism of repentance, symbolizing a desire to be restored to a right relationship with God. But John saw through the charade of the Pharisees and Sadduccees. They were unrepentant because they saw no need for it. They viewed themselves as fully righteous and John knew that their false concept was based on their status as sons of Abraham. Which is why he stated:

Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones.” – Matthew 3:9 NLT

Not exactly PC-language. But John was out to prepare the people for the arrival of the Lamb of God, who alone can take away the sins of the world. The Pharisees and Sadduccees saw themselves as sinless and, therefore, in no need of a Savior. But John warns these self-righteous men that their lack of fruit in keeping with true righteousness was going to result in their removal.

“Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:10 NLT

There was a change coming. The status quo that had existed in Israel for centuries was about to be rocked. With the arrival of Jesus, everything was about to change. The first would be last and the last would be first. The self-righteous were about to be exposed as unrighteous. The sinners of the world were about to be embraced by the Savior of the world. The weak would find new strength. The spiritually blind would gain their signt. The captives would be set free. And the lost would be found. Because the Messiah had come.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson