Directions on the Mountaintop

If restricted to having only a few pages of God's Word, what would you select? The epic account of the Exodus? The Christmas story? Peter's powerful sermon at Pentecost? All are cherished perennial favorites and for good reasons.

My choice, hands down, would be the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5. Why? Because it "skims the cream" off Jesus' timeless teachings and plainly states directions for his followers.

To comprehend and obey its principles is to truly grasp the gospel's essence. Little wonder its hallowed words, often memorized, have greatly inspired multitudes throughout the centuries. And scores, like my family, have taken pilgrimages to the supposed site of its delivery.

His Underlying Purpose
Scholars have chosen lofty labels for this wonderful lesson: "Compendium of Christ's Doctrine," "Magna Charta of the Kingdom," "Manifesto of the King." All are spot on.

But the one closest to the sermon's primary intent seems to be "Ordination Address to the Twelve." Indeed, the disciples' selection occurred immediately prior (Matthew 4:18-22, Luke 6). The spotlight of Jesus' teaching was brightly beamed on his chosen inner circle. It was imperative that they grasp how to live, and what to accurately propagate in his name.

Scottish biblical scholar William Barclay doubts that this great message was offered in a single day. "Soaking time" was essential. While taking it all in, it very likely dawned on the disciples that the classic sermon was none other than a verbal portrait of Jesus himself. In his book, Christ of the Mount, respected missionary to India, E. Stanley Jones, declared of Jesus' sermon:

As he draws the lines in the picture of the Father . . . he is dipping his brush into the deeps of His own life and experience and gradually we see that "one dear Face," the interpretation of both God and man. We have here not the lines of a code but the liniments of a Character.

Quintessential Moral Compass
This sermon is light years beyond any inspirational treatise ever delivered, primarily due to its radical ethic of love. Repeated, unconditional forgiveness is required for even (especially) our most detested enemy. That very fact prompted the likes of Hindu leader, Mahatma Gandhi, to declare its unmatched potential for bringing about global peace.

But the message issues forth costly demands, ones that cut cross-grain with our natural obsession to be self-centered, and with our strong cultural compulsion to reward only the shrewdest and most aggressive.

To be sure, our Lord sets a very high bar. Can we, mere mortals fraught with great limitations, realistically hope to transcend its height?

It's Our Call: Jesus laid it on the line - stringent commands to which we are admonished to respond. But does our Savior really expect precise conformity, or does he offer some "wiggle room?" Our answer to this question results in alignment with one of the following mindsets:

Toss in the towel: Convinced of the value of these commands, we can put forth a good faith effort to comply. But then, after repeated failures, we often give up, believing that too much is expected of us. Defeated, we choose to totally succumb.

Cut ourselves slack: After coming up short, we can conclude that our understanding Lord does not expect full compliance. He extols ideals and we, like the proverbial horseshoe player, need only get close. And having done so, we need never feel guilt or regret.

Swallow the medicine: An ancient Greek wisely declared: "Once you've seen the truth there is nothing you can do to unsee it." Jesus declares the rock-ribbed, honest-to-goodness, gospel truth. These are his commands - not suggestions, hints, or negotiable points - to past, present, and future disciples.

Of these options only the third suffices. According to the Master, obedience is of crucial importance. Stated more emphatically, he declares it to be the very proof of our love for him: "Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them" (John. 14:21).

Slips, Slides, and Shortcomings
Will we lapse into disobedience at times? Without a doubt. But when this occurs, we must never possess a cavalier or fatalistic attitude. Nor need we tumble back to "square one." Under the wise and patient tutelage of the blessed Holy Spirit, we are to ask forgiveness and resume our journey toward increasing Christlikeness - retaining all valuable lessons acquired in the process.

This assumes great confidence in God's immeasurable, inexhaustible supply of grace. To paraphrase my spiritual father, Reuben Welch, underlying the commands in the Sermon on the Mount is a powerful "ethic of grace" (not harsh judgment), and our obedience will best occur in his "community of grace" (the church).

In short, our Lord is on our side, pulling for us to triumph and infusing us with strength, stamina, and stability. Best of all, he is our intimate companion from the "get go" to the last mile. With that in mind, how can we possibly be tempted to lose heart?

Jon Johnston is professor of sociology and anthropology emeritus at Pepperdine University.

Where Do You Stand?
Some find it helpful to isolate the specific commands in this great sermon and then to self-evaluate. This instrument proposes to assist in this process.

After taking the test and tabulating, you may wish to enter into reflective discussion with others who also took the test.

There will be differences regarding which are the most challenging commands due to such things as difference in temperament, parental upbringing, culture, and spiritual maturity. Discuss which are pertinent to your life. Finally, focus on how you might begin to master those commands that appear especially challenging.


SELF-TEST: How difficult is it for you to abide by the commands contained in this timeless sermon of our Lord? Choose your answers from the scale below. After completing the test, write a 1 and 2 beside the commands you find most difficult.

A = extremely difficult for me

B = somewhat difficult for me

C = somewhat easy for me

D = very easy for me

BEING - the condition of your heart

1. ___ Be humble, not arrogant, prideful, or all self-sufficient (Matthew 5:5).

2. ___ Give highest priority to God and His righteousness, not to earthly things (Matthew 5:24).

3. ___ Store good things in your heart, so that good things come out of your mouth (Matthew 6:43-45, Luke 6:45).

4. ___ Avoid materialism, the compulsive grasp for earth's treasures (Matthew 6:19-21).

5. ___ Refrain from being obsessed with the niceties of this life, e.g., wealth, success, and a good reputation (Matthew 6:24-26| Luke 6:24-26).

6. ___ Focus your eyes (or heart) on the right priorities (Matthew 6:22).

7. ___ Have passion for living a holy life (Matthew 5:6).

8. ___ Focus on possessing a pure heart (Matthew 5:8).

9. ___ Refrain from committing adultery (lusting) in your heart (Matthew 5:27-29).

10. ___Don't worry about your needs being supplied, e.g., food, drink, clothing. Matthew 6:25-32

11. ___ Don't worry about bad things that could occur in the future| focus on the present (Matthew 6:22-23).

DOING - your assignment to undertake

12. ___ Do good deeds for God's glory (Matthew 5:16).

13. ___ Refuse to show off your righteousness when giving, praying, or fasting Matthew 6:1-3, 16-18).

14. ___ Be persistent in prayer, confident that God will lovingly respond (Matthew 7:7-8).

15. ___ Mourn over your sins and others' pain (Matthew 5:4).

16. ___ Be plainspoken - not trying to sound convincing by taking oaths nor swearing by something, e.g., a stack of Bibles (Matt. 5:4).

17. ___ Don't break God's commandments or teach others to do the same (Matthew 5:19-20).

18. ___ Teach truth to those who are ready and willing to grasp it (Matthew 7:6).

19. ___ Practice the truth Jesus exemplified and taught (Matthew 7:24-27, Luke 6:46-49).

RELATING - interfacing with others His way

20. ___ Make a special effort to avoid or quell conflict with others (Matthew 5:9).

21. ___ Settle unavoidable disputes quickly to avoid court (Matthew 5:26-29).

22. ___ Before worshiping God, take the initiative to reconcile with your brother (Matthew 5:24).

23. ___ When wronged, offer leniency rather than demanding justice (Matthew 5:7).

24. ___ Manifest a forgiving spirit, realizing that it is the condition for God to forgive you (Matthew 6:14-15, Luke 6:37-38).

25. ___ Abide by the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31).

26. ___ When stolen from, cursed at, or assaulted, generously return good for evil. (Matthew 5:38-44, Luke 6:27-30).

27. ___ Be joyful when insulted for taking a stand for Christ (Matthew 5:10-12, Luke 6:22-23).

28. ___ Don't divorce a partner who hasn't committed adultery, nor marry a divorced adulteress. (Matthew 5:31-32.)

29. ___Be generous (with gifts/loans) to the needy (Matthew 5:42, Luke 6:30).

30. ___Don't judge, realizing that you are judged by the standards you impose (Matthew 7:1-5, Luke 6:37-42).

31. ___ Don't be angry or call another names, e.g., "fool" (worthless one). Matthew 5:22).

32. ___ Identify with the righteous minority, not with the godless majority (Matthew 7:13-14).

33. ___Refuse to be deceived by false leaders, i.e., don't be gullible or naïve (Matthew 7:25-30).

Holiness Today, November/December 2012

Please note: This article was originally published in 2012. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.