Some people hate the Sermon on the Mount, which surprises me since the sermon was one of the texts that first drew me to Jesus. It made sense to me and I came away thinking that Jesus was the smartest man who ever lived. But not everyone feels that way.
Some complain, upon first reading the sermon, that its directives are impossible to keep. How can we possibly turn the other cheek to those who strike us? How can we possibly love our enemies or pray for those who persecute us? How can we choose heavenly treasure over the stockpiling of earthly goods? The sermon’s critics are right about one thing. It is utterly impossible to live this way—at least by our own strength. But I disagree with those who say the sermon cannot be obeyed.
I also disagree with those who say the sermon was not meant to be obeyed. They say Jesus intentionally raised the bar so high just to show us how impossible it is to measure up so that we might give up and rely on grace to save us. The problem with such a view is that it turns the Sermon on the Mount into a law, a legal code much like the Law of Moses, with a similar function of exposing our sin, but giving us little or no empowerment for overcoming it.
While Jesus was not giving a new law, his intent is that the sermon be obeyed. This sermon is impossible to obey if you’re relying on your own strength alone. To see the sermon as a “new law” means you’re defeated before you start. The flesh is too weak to measure up to any law that originates from the mind of a perfectly righteous God. So approaching the sermon as law means it’s impossible to keep.
But with God all things are possible—even obedience to the Sermon on the Mount. This won’t happen by sheer will power. Law alone cannot motivate obedience. Our hearts must be changed. We must allow God to work in us so that our obedience flows from inside out. Only a good tree bears good fruit (Matt. 7:17-18). So Jesus gave the sermon knowing that humanity didn’t need more legislation, but rather transformation. We didn’t need a new law, but new hearts.
The Sermon on the Mount describes the behavior of those whose hearts have been made new. They’ve been changed by a relationship with Jesus. They’ve been cut to their hearts by the hearing of the gospel. Their hearts have been broken by the cross and given renewed hope by the resurrection. A relationship with Jesus transforms and the relationship grows through the two-way communication of prayer and Scripture. We draw nearer to him as we are blessed by the fellowship of his body—the church. In the true believer Christ becomes known and others might come to know him through us.