[May 25, 2008] Today we look at the crucial beginning of Jesus’ ministry. How important this is for every one of us! What it means to become a Christian is what we find here. Jesus calls disciples to come after Him and then He tells them what they have entered into. It is the story of every Christian. We should recognize it. If not, we need to hear Jesus call us.
This is so important to the meaning and purpose of your whole life that you cannot just leave it to what you get on Sunday morning. You have got to read the gospels on your own. You have got to get to know them. You have got to get very intimate with them. Jesus needs to speak to you. Every Sunday I am frustrated because I want you to be awed by our little reading, but I can only touch the tip of it. This is even more true today. There is so much here, I have to fly over the details. YOU have to go into them yourselves, and if you love Jesus, you will take the Sermon on the Mount and chew on every line of it. I mean it!
In chapter three Jesus heard a voice out of heaven saying, “This is My Son, the Beloved, in whom I have found My delight.” Then He immediately goes into the wilderness to be tested and as soon as He emerges He begins to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” He means that He IS the kingdom of the heavens, that the kingdom of the heavens is where HE is, that the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near to Israel in Himself, by His own coming. Yet He says this remarkably without any human ego; it is simply true.
The first thing to grasp—and you must grasp it—is that Christianity is not about beliefs or behavior, it is not about adopting a way of life. It is about Jesus Christ; it is about Himself. In Him the kingdom of the heavens draws near to YOU. You cannot understand a word of the Sermon on the Mount if you do not get this. It is ALL about Him. He comes to us, and invites us to come into His realm, His sphere, His zone. To put it bluntly, He calls us into Himself. “The kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” This is the Gospel that He proclaims in verse 23, “the Gospel of the kingdom.” Gospel means “good news.” It is an announcement. If I tell you the news (and you believe me), you become responsible for your response. If I am reliable and tell you a tsunami is coming and you do not get to higher ground, you are a fool.
The Call to Discipleship
There is only one response to the presence of Jesus and His announcing that the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near: to “repent.” What does it mean to repent? We think it means to feel sorry for our sins. Sure, that is there, but it is only a part of it. To repent means to stop what you are doing and turn around, turn your whole life—your whole being—around. It means to do this from the inside out, to change your life by changing your mind, your whole point of view, your outlook. But, what does that mean?
Jesus is walking and sees two fishermen at work. These are men on the job, working at their livelihood. They are not “in church.” They are in the midst of the ordinary world and about their workaday life, dirty and sweating, joking and cursing, hauling nets with fish flapping around, and worrying about the day’s catch. Jesus sees them and calls out to them and says, “Come after Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
He says, “Come after Me.” He calls YOU, if you can hear Him. In this very passage HE is calling YOU. Across the years of history, He is present in this text, as we read it—He Himself, in person, in this very place (wherever you are when you read this)—and calls you personally, as if He were saying your name.
“And immediately leaving the nets, they followed Him.” This is what it means to repent. Here, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel according to Matthew we are shown this. THIS is the only appropriate response to Jesus. Immediately they drop whatever they were doing and follow Him. NOW, Jesus says to you, because there is no other time. Jesus does not ask you to squeeze Him in. You need to drop everything and make room for Him. He must become the center of your life. You need to organize everything else around HIM. Even if it means dropping everything else.
Jesus keeps walking and sees two other fishermen. They are on the shore mending their nets. They are not alone. They are with their father. They are involved in the family business. Jesus interrupts them and calls them too.
“And immediately leaving the boat and their father, they followed Him.” This is what Jesus means by repentance. He takes so much priority to everything else that they just leave the boat and their father behind. What is OUR response to Jesus? Do we respond to Him? Do we hear Him calling us?
Do not admire Peter, Andrew, James and John. Matthew is not telling us these stories so that we can be impressed with them. He is showing us the pattern of discipleship. They are not heroes. They are examples, patterns. This is what it means to become a disciple. Jesus comes to us—actually, literally, personally—through the Word. And we must respond immediately.
We have so many questions! The answers come later. We must first respond to His person. Understanding does not come first. Obedience does.
But what about faith? I thought all I had to do was believe. THIS is faith, the only kind that counts. The word faith does not mean believing in certain ideas, agreeing with certain teachings. It is a personal response. The word in the original means faithfulness, fidelity, commitment, allegiance, loyalty to a person. Faith is this “whole-being” turning of obedience to Jesus.
When chapter 5, verse 1 uses the word “disciple,” this is what it means. Every disciple is someone whom Jesus Himself calls and who has responded.
The Ministry of Jesus
Notice that Jesus went around teaching, teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. Obviously, teaching is the main part of ministry. Some people want sermons that are inspiring and uplifting, but Jesus and the apostles taught. Christians must value teaching, and if you value teaching, you must value learning. Schools have poisoned us against learning. Forget about schools. A child naturally learns, and desires to learn, without any schooling. We must have that feeling. We must be in love with the Word enough to want to understand it. Never leave this job to someone else.
The kingdom will be manifested when God begins to exercise His rule on earth by restoring all things. Right now it is hidden. But when Jesus went around teaching, He manifested the kingdom wherever He went. Everywhere He went He healed people. The kingdom broke into the world wherever He went because He embodied the kingdom, He was the kingdom of God on earth. He did not heal people occasionally, He healed people a LOT.
The Sermon on the Mount
But that was only a sign of who He was. The crowds that came to Him were not disciples. When He saw the crowds He used to go up on a mountain, where perhaps He could see them, and where perhaps they could hear Him, but He would take His disciples apart and teach them. He did not direct the Sermon on the Mount to the crowd. He directed it to the disciples whom He called and who had dropped everything to follow Him.
Where are you? Are you in the crowd that admires Jesus, Jesus the teacher, Jesus the healer? Or are you a disciple? Do we turn to Jesus for what He can give us: answers to our prayers or the wisdom of the ages? Or do we pledge Him our allegiance, our loyalty? Are we willing to follow Him to the cross? Or are we just part of the crowd—like those who listen to motivational speakers who call themselves preachers, or worse, those who flock to the preachers of a so-called gospel of prosperity? The crowds around these men are only admirers of Jesus, not disciples. Jesus calls you to be a disciple.
But if you are going to be more than an admirer, you have got to listen to Him, you have got to gather at His feet and take whatever He says as if your life depends on it. You have to act like you did leave everything else behind to follow this One, this One who obeys the Father no matter what the cost.
Matthew arranged his gospel as a teaching manual for disciples. In it are five big teaching sections, five like the number of books of Moses. During Easter we covered the fourth teaching section—about living the life of the church. The first teaching section is the Sermon on the Mount. This is the discipleship primer. What Jesus describes in this Sermon is what the life of a disciple is supposed to look like. It is the ‘ethics’ of the Christian life. Every Christian should be intimately familiar with it. Read it over and over, hundreds of times. This is your manual for daily life.
But you must not take it out of context. You must not isolate it by itself, as if it gave rules for living that you can adopt and apply to your life. Lots of people have done this: turn it into “Christian ethics.” Nor does Jesus merely give us ideals that we should strive for, as if this were all just theory and He did not mean for us to take Him seriously. Lots of people have said that too. It is nonsense. Jesus means nothing if He does not mean us to do what He says.
The Sermon only makes sense if you are a disciple and these are Jesus’ own words to you. The grace of discipleship has to come first. The “command” is personal, not an external rule that we try to follow. When He calls us and we respond, He takes us into His hand and He Himself becomes whatever we need in order to follow Him. He becomes the source of our obedience. We cannot follow Him according to His Sermon on our own, and yet He does expect us to do this. We can do it by the Holy Spirit.
So the Sermon begins with the beatitudes. “Blessed” Jesus says. Moses spoke of blessedness as being the result of obedience to God. Israel lost the blessing when they lost the land and went into exile. Actually, they never entered their blessedness. The prophets, however, spoke of it as something that would finally come to Israel when the Messiah brought the kingdom of God. Well, the kingdom of God has not come yet historically, but it has drawn near in Jesus. If we are His disciples, if we drop everything else and give our total allegiance and loyalty to Him, then we enter into His sphere, His realm. We get a taste of His kingdom, we even enter it in a preliminary way, before it arrives on the big scene.
So when Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, etc.” He is talking first of all about Himself. These all describe Him. Was He not poor in spirit in the wilderness temptations? Did He not mourn for Israel the way Jeremiah did? And so on. You must study the individual beatitudes yourself. There is no time to describe them now. But understand that they are not commands. They are descriptions. “Blessed are … theirs is …” On the one hand, these are conditional statements. You must fulfill the condition before you can be rewarded with the result. On the other hand, they describe Jesus Himself and those who follow Him, who enter His company. Disciples are those who enter His circle and become His raw material. The moment we become disciples, we go from being clay to being stones, and now Jesus is turning us into gold, silver and precious stones. The beatitudes describe who Jesus is and what He is making us into.
Notice how they separate us from the world. “Blessed are the persecuted.” He calls us out of the world. In the Old Testament God separated Noah, Abraham and the children of Israel. In the New Testament Jesus calls us out to become His people. The world is under the evil one. If the world does not persecute us, it is because we are salt without taste and we have hidden our light. In other words, we fit in so well that we have become invisible, we have become “respectable.” No, Jesus says. If we follow Him, it is the way of the cross for us too. If they treated Him that way, they will treat us the same. “Blessed are the persecuted.”
Rejoice and exult! In Acts the disciples rejoiced when they were persecuted. In Thessalonians and 1 Peter the apostles tell us that we should rejoice when persecuted, not just endure it but be happy about it. It means we are doing something right. In reality, persecution is a terrible thing. People break under persecution. They lose everything, even their health. But Jesus knows this, and He still means it. Rejoice, for your reward is great.
Salt is a purifying agent. It is used to preserve things. The presence of Jesus’ disciples are salt to the earth. Without salt, the world would already have rotted away. The world is not the kingdom of God but it is not altogether bad either. Salt is preserving the world for the day of judgment, so that there is still time for God to have mercy. As Christians, we must keep our kingdom-of-God flavor, or else we become useless to the world.
You are salt, but you are also light. As His community, His city, it is impossible for our light to be hidden. But individually we may hide our light under a bushel. It is tempting to be invisible. If people do not know we are followers of Jesus, they will not point out our faults so easily, they will not call us hypocrites. We can avoid a lot of criticism. But they will also give us the credit for our good works instead of our Father who is in the heavens. To let our light shine means we must confess Christ and be His witness. We need to open our mouth and let people know that Jesus is our Savior and Master, no matter what kind of disciple we may think we are. We need to declare our loyalty, or the enemy will think that we are one of his.
Finally, Jesus does not call us into an individual journey. We are called to be a city, to be a “people,” a community, set apart from the world. The Bible knows nothing of a do-it-yourself-at-home type Christianity. “I can read the Bible at home.” Of course, and you better, but that does not make you a disciple. There has to be personal service in a real community where relationships can be tough. The world is not the church. You can serve people in the world at a distance, institutionally. But that is not the only service Christ calls you to. He calls you into the called-out community that confesses His name.