Spiritual Zeroes

Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount Gustave Dore

Jesus’ sermon on the mount. I’ve been reading Dallas Willard’s discussion in his book “The Divine Conspiracy“, now my favorite podcast preacher (Brian Zahnd) has been preaching on it the past couple of weeks. So now I’m going to begin to write about it. And I’ll probably continue to write on it for the next couple of months. Not every day, but I will keep coming back to this sermon.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ greatest sermon, which means it is most like the greatest sermon ever preached. The greatest talk ever given. Without a doubt, the single biggest source of direct teaching from Jesus Christ our Lord, three full chapters in Matthew’s Gospel.
The Sermon on the Mount can not be overemphasized. It just can’t be done. As the Gettysburg Address is to Abraham Lincoln, as the I have a dream speech is to Martin Luther King, Jr, so the Sermon on the Mount is to Jesus Christ. Just as you wouldn’t attempt to understand Lincoln or the Reverend Dr. King without studying these speeches, you can’t attempt to understand Jesus without studying and understanding the Sermon on the Mount.

If we are going to take Jesus seriously as a teacher, the Sermon on the Mount must be privileged and emphasized among our understanding of the total bible. Jesus teaches many things here, including some of his famous “You have heard it said, but I say…”, that simply turn our understanding and thinking and long-held, treasured beliefs upside down. We don’t get to read Jesus’ teaching here, go back and find our treasured belief in the Old Testament, and tell Jesus to sit down and shut up.
Because – either we take Jesus seriously as a teacher or we don’t take Him seriously at all. We don’t get to claim Jesus as our personal savior, then politely explain that, yes, I like that Jesus died on the cross for my sins to get me into heaven when I die, but in my own life I prefer “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.” We can try to separate the cross from the Sermon on the Mount if we want to, but if we do we will end up misunderstanding both. The Sermon on the Mount is the clearest view we have to understand the beliefs, the teaching, and the very life of Jesus, right up to and including the moment of His crucifixion and praying from the cross for those who crucified Him.

So let’s look at the scene. Remember, Jesus had been baptized by John, then gone out into the wilderness for forty days and been tempted by the devil. He returned from that temptation, heard the John the Baptist had been arrested, and moved from Nazareth to Capernaum. And it was here that Jesus began his ministry. “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭4:17‬ ‭ESV‬‬. He calls his first disciples, and begins healing and teaching drawing great crowds. “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭4:23-25‬ ‭ESV‬‬.

Jesus’ fame is spreading very quickly. He declared the kingdom of heaven to be at hand (as in right here, right now), and began to bring that kingdom to the sick and hurting people from all around. People come from throughout Syria, and great crowds began to follow him, some of the people coming from great distances for the chance to see and hear the man with the power to heal. As Jesus would explain to the followers of John when they would come to ask if he truly was “the one”, “…”Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Matthew‬ ‭11:4-5‬ ‭ESV‬‬. The Kingdom of God, indeed, is at hand.
Which brings us to Matthew Chapter 5. “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:1-2‬ ‭ESV‬‬. We have great crowds following Jesus, and seeing the great crowds he climbs up what we know today as the mount of beatitudes, and his disciples came to him, and he taught them. So, understand two things here. 1). Jesus is teaching his disciples here, those who already are following Him. 2). Just as importantly, the crowds, though he is not speaking directly to them, are still able to hear what Jesus is saying. He does not withdraw to some remote place to get away from the crowd to give some highly theoretical speech. He is teaching his disciples directly, and the crowds indirectly. We know the because at the end of Chapter 7, at the end of the sermon, Matthew tells us this – “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭7:28-29‬ ‭ESV


What follows immediately is known as the beatitudes. Jesus has been ministering to the needs of the crowd, the people, the masses. Having ministered to their needs, Jesus moves to a higher position where he knew those crowds would be able to hear and see him better. And in the midst of the masses of people, with a crowd who’s both been healed and witnessed his healing powers hanging on every word, he teaches his disciples, his students, what he means when he says the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

So Jesus had the masses of people below. What he does in the beatitudes, is use the people who’ve been thronging all around, pressing upon him, seeking him, to use as a kind of show and tell (in the words of Dallas Willard) to teach his disciples about the availability of the kingdom of God. So as he teaches that God blesses the poor in spirit, he has hundreds, if not thousands, of the poor in spirit all around Him to use as an example to say “The kingdom of heaven is for them, too.” He is pointing to the spiritual zeroes (again, Willard’s words), those who don’t know their bibles, don’t know the law, those who would be the last people we would ask to pray for us, those who would be the last people we would see God in, and saying that, YES, the kingdom of God has come upon even them!!
Let me put it this way. Contrary to what we’ve been taught and believe, Jesus is not giving us a new set of laws for getting into the kingdom of God. He’s not giving us a set of spiritual  conditions we must achieve to gain access to his kingdom.  You don’t have to be spiritually poor, you don’t have to strive to be spiritually poor, to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus is not saying that being spiritually poor is a good thing. Being spiritually poor does not in some way qualify you for heaven. He’s not saying the poor in spirit are blessed because they are poor in spirit. Being poor in spirit does not make you worthy of the kingdom. If we think this, we are just replacing the old law with the new law, the “law of the blessings”, right? What Jesus is saying is that in spite of, not because of, their condition of being spiritually poor, even these are welcome into the kingdom of God.
Which would, indeed, be Good News to those listening, because even most of the twelve started out as a spiritual zero. I met Jesus as a spiritual zero.  Maybe you did too.

John Lewis

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