Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells the story of Dr B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), an eminent Indian lawyer, economist, social reformer and politician.1 Dr Ambedkar was a Dalit, a group below the lowest caste of the Hindu caste system, formerly called “untouchables”. Late in life he converted from Hinduism to Buddhism. While a student, he had lived in the USA and UK, but found there was no life in the Christianity that he saw there. The transformative power that he was seeking was to be found, he believed, in Buddhism.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) was attracted by Christ but repelled by His followers. He famously commented, “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.” Yet in his autobiography he recorded that the Sermon on the Mount “went straight to my heart” and “delighted me beyond measure”.2
How could the true faith have degenerated so? Of course, failure has been with us since the early Church. The Ephesian Christians lost their first love (Revelation 2:4-5). Yet history suggests that the Christian faith, founded on the simplicity of Jesus, often turns into a mere religion when it becomes a respectable system, based chiefly on approved liturgy or sound doctrine.
In 312, only seven years after the “Great Persecution”, Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity. The following year he and Emperor Licinius established religious liberty throughout the Roman Empire. No longer persecuted, the Church grew rapidly. Church leaders began to express concern that some of the new Christians had “converted” to the emperor’s religion only in the hope of winning his favour. As Christianity gradually became the dominant religion of the Empire it absorbed Roman culture until the lifestyle of urban elite Christians was little different from those around them.3
Christianity ceased to be a simple faith centred on Jesus, with the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount shaping the lives of Christians. It became a civic religion based on power, and (may God forgive us) for many long centuries an oppressor of others.
No longer looking to the example of Jesus, Christians copied contemporary models of leadership, with fifth-century bishops patterning themselves on Roman consuls and twenty-first century pastors patterning themselves on businessmen or TV personalities.
American theologians, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, have spoken of “Constantinianism”, meaning that “with an adapted and domesticated gospel, we could fit American values into a loosely Christian framework”.⁴ They saw this “domestication” of the Gospel and of Christian ethics as typical of the Western Church after 313, when Christianity was dominant in society.
Sadly, the Western Church lost the simplicity of Jesus and was marked by superficiality and shallowness.
The Church was never meant to be powerful and dominant. She was meant to be a pilgrim community. The people of faith are “strangers and pilgrims” on the earth (Hebrews 11:13, KJV; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:11). Other translations say foreigners, wanderers, exiles or aliens. Earth is not our home. We do not belong here because we are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20).
Interestingly, the Beatitudes begin and end with the promised reward of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3,10), as if Jesus were emphasising to His disciples that they belonged in a different realm.
Hauerwas and Willimon have described the Church as a colony, a beachhead or an outpost, that is “an island of one culture in the middle of another, a place where the values of home [heaven] are reiterated and passed on to the young, a place where the distinctive language and life-style of the resident aliens are lovingly nurtured and reinforced”. It is the demands of the Sermon on the Mount, they explain, which make necessary the formation of a colony, because these, if believed and lived, are what make us different from the world.5
We are journeying to our heavenly Home and we should be travelling light, not encumbered with material possessions. As stateless foreigners in this world, we do not have earthly powers or physical land. We were never meant to build huge edifices and shrines that spoke of status and privilege.
When Jesus said that we must become like children in order to enter the Kingdom of God, He was referencing the powerlessness of children in the society of His day. We can see this from His encouragement to “humble” ourselves, that is to take a lowly position (Matthew 18:3-4).
The early Christian community was a pilgrim Church without earthly power.
The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount take us back to the beginning, from which they offer us a way forward, that way being the pathway of God, the pathway to glory.
“The renewal of the church will come about through … an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount,” said German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), who lived in a country and a time when large sections of the Church supported Adolf Hitler and Nazi ideology.6
As the longstanding dominance of the Church in the USA was beginning to fade, Hauerwas and Willimon wrote in 1989 of what a blessing it was to live at a time when the Church was becoming marginalised.
…in the twilight of that [Christian-dominated] world, we have an opportunity to discover what has been and always is the case – that the church, as those called out by God, embodies a social alternative that the world cannot on its own terms know.
The demise of the Constantinian world view, the gradual decline of the notion that the church needs some sort of surrounding “Christian culture” to prop it up and mold its young, is not a death to lament. It is an opportunity to celebrate. The decline of the old, Constantinian synthesis between the church and the world means that we American Christians are at last free to be faithful in a way that makes being a Christian today an exciting adventure.7
The role of Christians is to live lives that model Christ. Rather than try to change the culture of society at large, Christians should simply live out the distinctively Christian ethics of the Sermon on the Mount.
Every Christian is therefore meant to embody the life of Jesus. Each Beatitude shows an aspect of the character of Christ and should be an aspect of the character of a Christian too, formed in us by the indwelling Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9). The Beatitudes are not a smorgasbord of virtues, from which to choose one or two. Rather, every disciple should show all these characteristics. The same applies to the rest of the Sermon. All the teaching is for all Jesus’ disciples.
The Sermon on the Mount gives us a portrait of the Preacher Himself.8 And we must be like Him.
Some say that, as Christians, we are under grace, not under law, and therefore have no need for rules of any kind. But this is an error. The risen Jesus commanded the Eleven to “make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). He wanted disciples who would pattern their lives on His, disciples who would not make light of His commands but would seek to obey them.
The reason for the incarnation was that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us” (Romans 8:3-4). In the words of J. Oswald Sanders, “the primary purpose of grace is to enable us to meet the demand of God’s holy law”, and the Church is in desperate need of the ethical teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.9
Let us not allow anyone, whether liberal or evangelical in their theological views, and however sincere in their personal convictions, to deprive us of the challenge, the searching, and the inspiration of this matchless Sermon.10
Some say the Sermon of Mount was preached for another age, not for the modern world. Some say that we cannot be expected to emulate a Person who lived on earth 2,000 years ago, as we make our way through the morass of our secular humanist, pluralist context. Some say that it is wishful thinking to hold that Jesus could be incarnate in the lives of His followers in the twenty-first century. Some say the Sermon is for all humanity, not just for the disciples of Christ. Some say the Sermon is for a Christian elite, not for ordinary Christians. Some say that it is for the “remnant” in a future “Kingdom age”. Some say that the values of the Sermon are unattainable, so there is no point even trying.
As Sanders points out, every principle in the Sermon is reiterated in one form or another in the New Testament epistles.11 The Apostle Paul strove constantly to grow more like his Master. We can be sure that the Sermon on the Mount, described to him by the Eleven who had sat at the Lord’s feet and heard it first-hand, must have been supremely important to him. It should be supremely important for all of Christ’s disciples, showing us how He wants us to live, which is how He lived Himself.
It is through living out the Sermon on the Mount that we can bear good fruit in our lives, the figs and grapes that Jesus describes (Matthew 7:15-20). Unless we cling to Jesus and His teachings, our lives will bear bitter fruit or the mere fluff of thistledown.
The Sermon on the Mount must be embraced and lived, for it is nothing less than the life of Jesus that is being embraced and the character of Jesus that is being formed in each one of us as we live it.
Jesus is not only our Saviour, the One who died on the cross to take away our sins, the One who gives us new life through His resurrection, the One who gives us a future and the sure hope of heaven. He is also our Lord, our Master, our King. He is the life that we live. He is the air that we breathe. In Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Our lives are inseparable from Him.
The question is not only what Jesus meant to us when we first believed, but also what He means to us now, today, this minute. Our ongoing relationship with Him is the essence of faith.
Paul saw the importance of Jesus not just in terms of salvation but also as the mainspring and essence of his very being. Paul was “fixated” with Christ. “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me,” he wrote (Galatians 2:20) and “for to me, to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). It was Christ’s grace which carried him in times of pain and anguish (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul in turn carried on his own body “the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17).
In Philippians 3:4-11, having outlined the things that his community considered most valuable, he rejected them all as dung (v.8, KJV). What Paul valued now, he says, was “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”. Later he explains more:
I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11)
He saw this as a lifelong process.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Philippians 3:12)
Paul had one of the most dramatic conversions imaginable (Acts 9). He knew well that it is by the grace of God and through the atoning death of Christ that we are saved, not by keeping God’s law (Galatians 2:21). Yet it was his continuing relationship with Jesus that was the focus for Paul as he went on in the Christian life. He wanted to know “Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8) as well as “Christ Jesus our Saviour” (Titus 1:4).
Of course, deciding to put our trust in Jesus is the most important thing we ever do. Yet how sad it is when individual Christians or whole congregations stop there. I heard of a church near where I live in Wiltshire, UK, who told their pastor to give up his sermons on how to live the Christian life and just preach an evangelistic Gospel message to them every week. Essential though evangelism is, it should not be separated from teaching believers to live godly and righteous lives reflecting the beauty of their blessed Lord and so become a witness to unbelievers.
We should never cease in our thankfulness to the Lord for dying to take away our sins and in our praises for His glorious resurrection. Yet if we focus solely on this we are surely missing His plan for our lives.
Jesus spoke of entering by a narrow gate and then following a hard road (Matthew 7:13-14, ESV). After deciding to step through the gate we must continue along the road, however hard it may be. Discipleship is an ongoing process in which we must make countless decisions every day.
We made the right choice when we went through the narrow gate, but we must keep on making right choices if we are to stay on the difficult road which leads from the narrow gate to life. The American author John Steinbeck (1902-1968) wrote:
We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.12
Jesus is our Lord and our life as well as our Saviour. Until we get to heaven, we face inner conflict every day as we decide whether to act in a Christ-like way or a different way.
We should be transformed by our daily relationship with Christ (Romans 12:2) – that is, “transformed into His image with ever increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
We can have a fair guess at how Paul would have reacted to the Wiltshire church I mentioned from his stern words to the Corinthian church who had not been much transformed and were still “mere infants in Christ” not yet ready for solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-3).
A key part of that transformation is the renewing of our minds, so that we love what the Lord loves and not what the world loves.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)
Many Christian hymns and songs have taken up this theme, for example:
May the mind of Christ, my Saviour,
Live in me from day to day,
By His love and power controlling
All I do and say.13
As Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out:
The Christian and the non-Christian are absolutely different in what they admire. The Christian admires the man who is ‘poor in spirit’… The world believes in self-confidence, self-expression and the mastery of life …
Then obviously they must be different in what they seek. ‘Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst.’ After what? Wealth, money, status, position, publicity? Not at all. ‘Righteousness.’…14
In the next article, we shall begin looking at the Beatitudes and see how they can transform us.
DR PATRICK SOOKHDEO
International Director, Barnabas Aid
1 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Vol.1. (London: Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1959) p.19. 2 M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publishing House, 1940), p.49. 3 Christianity did not become the official religion of the Roman Empire until 27 February 380 when Emperor Theodosius I issued the so-called Edict of Thessalonica. 4 Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), p.17. 5 Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, pp.12,74. 6 Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a 1935 letter to his brother cited in G. B. Kelly and F. B. Nelson (eds), A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (New York: HarperOne, 1990), p.320. 7 Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, pp.17-18. 8 J. Oswald Sanders, The World’s Greatest Sermon (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1972), p.7. 9 Sanders, The World’s Greatest Sermon, p.16. 10 Sanders, The World’s Greatest Sermon, p.16. 11 Sanders, The World’s Greatest Sermon, p.14. 12 John Steinbeck, East of Eden (New York: Viking Press, 1952), p.415. 13 Kate B. Wilkinson (1925) 14 Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Vol.1. pp.37-38.