Matthew Chapter 6 & 7 – A Beautiful Life? (Part 2)

 
Matthew 6-7 – A Beautiful Life? (Part 2)

One of America’s most famous novels is Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Sadly, church and religion do not escape the author’s infamous wit. Huck is confused that two so-called Christian families show such little love to one another. He can’t understand how one family could praise a sermon on Christian love on the way home from church while they sat through the service with guns on their knees. Twain exposes the hypocrisy and pretence of much of the mainline religion of his day.  

In the first of this two-part blog post on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, we saw the Lord Jesus Christ painting a glorious picture of what kingdom life looks like. He urged us not to settle for less than this life to the full. Rather like Mark Twain, Jesus sought to burst the bubble of the religious hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees of his day. Far from setting standards for godly living too high, the Lord argued that they had set them far too low. As we look now at Matthew 6-7, we see Jesus expose another problem. These religious leaders had entirely the wrong focus – on themselves and other people rather than on God. And, instead, Christ calls his disciples to be really religious.  

1. Christ calls us to be really religious (6:1-7:12)

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” The problem with the scribes and Pharisees is that they were pretending. Like actors, they were merely performing to the crowd, giving to the needy in a showy way (6:2-4), praying long prayers in public (6:5-8) or fasting for all to see (6:16-18). Jesus calls his disciples, instead, to secret giving, praying in private and fasting that goes unnoticed by others. Jesus famously expands his call to single-minded prayer in 6:9-15. He says that the kind of prayers that fit God’s priorities and bring God joy are not determined by the number of words we use or by trying to persuade God to do things for us. No, God delights to answer prayers that ask for Him to be honoured. That is real religion. As is depending on God for the resources we need and forgiveness that we then gladly extend to others.

According to Christ, whether we are giving, praying or fasting, we must keep our focus on God rather than on ourselves or on other people. They are not about making us feel good, impressing others or wringing some concession from God. They are a cry of our hearts that God is everything to us. He alone satisfies us, strengthens us and delights us. Do you see? Perhaps fasting expresses this most clearly in a deep down, physical way (6:16-18) and Jesus then spells it out as he calls his followers not to lay up treasure on earth but in heaven for “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (6:19-21). And notice that when we grasp how beautiful this kingdom life is that Christ offers, it will shape what we look at (6:22-23), it will dictate whom we live for (6:24) and what we stress about (6:25-34). Jesus is not decrying the pain of clinical anxiety or overturning medical reality. He is simply calling us to trust him rather than ourselves because this is what it means to be really religious.

And what an attractive life it is. So, Jesus calls us to be really religious not judgmental (7:1-5) because true religion begins by admitting that we cannot see clearly. We cannot see ourselves or others clearly and so we need to entrust ourselves to God the righteous judge. And being really religious means valuing what really matters (7:6). Jesus wants us to treasure and pursue the really religious life that he holds out for us (7:7-12). In Christ, our God is completely committed to helping us to know him and to live for him. God is irrevocably and irreversibly committed to helping us to live the good gift of this beautiful life that Jesus has been outlining in the Sermon on the Mount. You may know that Equipping Pastors Worldwide gives away many wonderful Puritan paperbacks. Well, one of the finest by Matthew Henry is called The Pleasantness of a Religious Life: Life as good as it can be. In it, he writes, “If you understand religion aright, you will find that it has an innate sweetness in it, inseparable from it.” Henry then goes on, in good Puritan style, to give 12 reasons and proofs of this, which are well worth reading. But Henry captures what Jesus is saying in Matthew 6-7 very well. Christ calls us to be really religious … because it is a beautiful life.

And that begs the question are we actually missing out? Do you see? This kind of far-reaching wholeheartedness, this boundless commitment to Christ is the way to true happiness. And I guess that is why Jesus finishes his Sermon on the Mount with a series of reasons for his followers to choose life in 7:13-28.

2. Christ calls us to choose life (7:13-28) 

When God speaks, we always have to choose. When God speaks to us through Christ, we must choose between blessing and curse. It is the same choice God’s people always had to make. But in Matthew 5-7, the choice is fleshed out. We have to choose the expansive, beautiful, righteous life of integrity that Jesus the King holds out or the restricted, constricted, wretched living death that the scribes and the Pharisees were pedalling. It is a choice between gospel-shaped, gospel-fuelled joy and empty, miserable moralism.

We have a choice between two gates (7:13-14). Many opt for the wide gate because its way is easy but it leads to destruction. So, Christ calls his disciples to choose the narrow gate and the hard way because that leads to life. Then we have a choice between two trees (7:15-20) – between the teaching of the false prophets and the words of Jesus. I take it we don’t need to be keen farmers to get the point. We should avoid the bad fruit of the diseased tree of false teaching. Instead, we should look at Jesus’ good fruit and so choose life. Then we have a choice between two confessions (7:21-23). We can either call Jesus ‘Lord’ and submit to him as our King or we can say ‘Lord, Lord’ and make it all about us. But the will of his Father is the beautiful life Jesus is offering us. So, we should choose true submission and choose life. And then, finally, we have the choice between two responses to Jesus’ words in 7:24-27.

Given how we often use this story of the two men who built their houses on rock or sand, the important thing to remember at this point is that Jesus is speaking to his disciples rather than to non-Christians. Do you see? Jesus is speaking to insiders at this point, to people like us. And coming at the end of the Sermon of the Mount, this well-known and much loved and used passage presents a very clear choice. It is the choice between fake religion, legalistic religion, do-it-yourself religion and the real thing. It is the choice between pursuing self-righteousness or receiving the righteousness that Jesus invites us to share. The choice between going through the motions in our own strength and enjoying life to the full with God. It is the choice between play-acting and pretending or real religion.

And Matthew 5-7 asks each of us today, which is it to be? No wonder as Jesus finished his sermon, people were astonished at the authority of his words (7:28). Of course, reading through Matthew’s Gospel, in this series as we are, we don’t yet know how Jesus will bring about this beautiful life which he invites us to enjoy with him. As we read on, it will gradually become clear that only Jesus can fully describe this life to us, only Jesus can fully live this life and only Jesus can give us this life. But Matthew wants us to know that Christ can and will do so. Therefore, as pastors seeking to serve the Lord and his church, we would be mad not to listen to the Lord. So, let’s not settle for anything less than this beautiful life. And let’s not pretend to be religious like the people in Jesus’ day and in Mark Twain’s day. Instead, let’s be really religious and choose life. As Peter said later in Jesus’ ministry, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…” (John 6:68)

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