We started looking at the Sermon on the Mount on 2 February this year and I said then, “The Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5-7, is perhaps the most profound example of Jesus’ teaching. My plan is that we look at this sermon as we explore Living Like Jesus. But, to be honest, I am rather intimidated by it. Almost all of it does sound too hard to put into practice. Some of it sounds so radical that I am not sure how to understand it. Preaching on it is a bit scary.”
I don’t know how useful it has been for you, but I have enjoyed grappling with this material and coming to understand it more than I had. But it still is very, very challenging teaching. You might remember that it starts with the Beatitudes: blessed are the spiritually bankrupt, those who mourn over their sin, the meek etc. Near the beginning Jesus said that He had come not to abolish the law but to fulfil it and He said that unless we have a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus upheld the law and He raised the bar.
Then there were all those examples of the raised bar: “You have heard that it is said… but I tell you…” Murder is one thing but even those who are angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement. Even those who look at a woman lustfully are guilty of adultery. That was followed by the very challenging teaching about turning the other cheek, loving enemies, and about giving to the needy, praying and fasting but not doing it “so as to be seen”. Store up treasure in heaven. Where is your focus? Do not worry; God will provide. Etc.
I’ve tried to remember, with each one, to ask if this is how Jesus lived because the motivation for all of this has, to some degree, been verses such as:
1 John 2:3-6 3 We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. 4 Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person.5 But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.
Even last week we looked at Jesus’ words about not judging; not being critical of others and not trying to fix other people before we have allowed God to deal with the things in our own lives.
Is it all too hard? Is it an impossible ideal? Many people have felt that the Sermon on the Mount is great but unachievable. Or, are we meant to do it? If Jesus lived this way, are we expected to as well?
So now, nearing the end of the sermon, Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.” There is the answer to the question of whether it is impossible. If all that we have heard sounds impossible, Jesus says, “Just ask.”
Without a doubt, Jesus’ point here is to stress that God answers prayer. He states it unambiguously. Everyone who asks receives. The one who seeks, finds. It is not immediately clear that He is talking about prayer. It could just be a general life principle.
I remember many years ago hearing that the Hamilton Art Gallery had secured the loan of a very prestigious, overseas art collection. When asked by the radio interviewer how little old Hamilton, New Zealand had managed such a coup, the director said, “Well, we asked.”
“He who ventures, wins.” Those who take initiatives; those try things; those who spot opportunities get the results.
But then Jesus makes it clear that He is talking about prayer specifically. Even a human father – and all humans are evil to some degree – even a human father will not give his child something harmful. Even human fathers want to give their children good things. How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him.
God is infinitely more loving than any human father. He wants to bless His children. Ask God. He will give you good things. Just as a father delights to give gifts to his children, God delights to answer our requests. Do you believe that?
Despite Jesus’ categorical statements here (“God will give good gifts to those who ask Him”) we are less sure. Our experience doesn’t seem to match this teaching. We have prayed for some things for many years and not yet seen results. Jesus’ statements seem too strong. We know that you don’t get everything you ask for in life. The statement ‘Ask and you will receive’ is not always literally true. It is not that simply, Jesus. Maybe we have kept praying those unanswered prayers or maybe we have given up; we have doubted that it is really worthwhile praying. God doesn’t seem to answer.
If we look at some other scriptures, we know that there is more to it than Jesus has mentioned here. We know that we cannot have everything we ask for. Imagine the power we would have if we received everything we asked for. Could you handle that power? Do you know what is best in every situation? Could you trust yourself to pray at all if you knew that God was going to do everything you asked? Imagine praying for other people and changing their lives. Could you handle that? Even praying that they become a Christian and they immediately do. You know that God wants people to know Him. You know that that is good for the other person. What could be wrong with praying that prayer? But even God doesn’t take away people’s free will; their ability to choose for themselves.
Imagine if your life was constantly being changed because other people were praying certain things for you. You wouldn’t be making your own decisions. You wouldn’t know whether you were Arthur or Martha. You wouldn’t know when the next person was going to pray and your life would suddenly change again. “Uh oh, someone just prayed for me. Now I am to be a missionary to ISIS. Whoops, someone else just prayed for me. Now God is going to meet all my needs by giving me a high-paying job. Here we go again. Wow, I’ve just been healed of a tumour I didn’t have. They must have got me confused with someone else.”
We know that Jesus taught persistence in prayer. God doesn’t necessarily answer immediately. And, in fact, He teaches persistence here. The commands are in the present imperative tense, meaning keep on asking; keep on seeking; keep on knocking.
We know that the question of prayer is more complicated than simply “ask and you will receive” so why did Jesus put it like this? He over-simplified it because He wants to make one point very clearly: God loves you and He answers prayer. How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him? God loves you and He delights to answer your prayers.
Do you believe that? What is your response: Ask and it will be given to you? It should motivate us to pray even more. We have an all-good, all-powerful Father Who answers pray. I sometimes wonder how much more I might see happening if only I prayed more. God is a generous Father.
If living like Jesus, as described in the Sermon on the Mount, seems impossible, ask God to enable you to live this life. If being a Christian is difficult, that is balanced by the resources of God, made available to those who pray. I cannot see any reason why God would not answer those prayers.
The thing that I found most difficult in these few verses is the “so” at the beginning of v.12. There is a logical link between the verses about prayer and the verse about doing to others – but I couldn’t see the connection. They seem to deal with two different topics: ask and you will receive. Therefore do to others what you would have them do to you. That logical connection between the two eluded me for a long time.
Matt 7:12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
This is the pinnacle of the sermon. This is the statement that sums it all up. Jesus said it sums up the Law and the Prophets i.e the whole of the Old Testament which, remember, Jesus said that He had come to fulfil. This is God’s teaching in a nutshell.
It is sometimes said that this teaching is common to just about every religion and that it pre-dates Jesus. That is not quite true. Earlier teachings had stated it in a negative form: “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.” That is still a good principle. Do not harm others. But that allows for inactivity. As long as I avoid doing harmful things, I am OK. If I do nothing bad, I am OK.
But Jesus expressed it differently: Do the good you would like others to do for you. That does not allow me to sit passively doing nothing (thus avoiding doing harm.) Jesus commands me to get out there and do good.
What would I like others to do for me? I would like them to befriend me, treat me with respect, show a genuine interest in me and give me time. So, what is Jesus saying? “Get out there and befriend people, showing them respect, taking a genuine interest in them and giving them time.”
What would I like others to do for me? I would like them to gently support me when I am going through hard times, and without judging me. What is Jesus saying? “Get out there and give practical help to people who are struggling.”
What would I like others to do for me? I would like people to be generous. So what is Jesus saying to me?
What would I like others to do for me? If I was making bad decisions, I would hope that someone would love me enough to lovingly challenge me? What is Jesus saying? Do you know someone who is making bad decisions? Do you need to talk to them in the same way that you hope someone would talk to you?
Notice too that it starts with “in everything”. This is all-embracing. In every aspect of life; in every situation; wherever there is a need. In everything, do for others what you would want them to do for you.
This perhaps is the most challenging sentence in the whole sermon. Nicky Gumbel calls them the most challenging words ever spoken. And yet, the examples I have just given are exactly what Jesus did. Jesus did befriend and show respect and take a genuine interest. This is not some impossible ideal. It is living like Jesus. It is a very simple principle. Everyone can understand this. In one form or another, it is taught by all of the world’s religions. It is a basic ethical principle. It is very simple. I know what I would like others to do for me. The principle simply asks me to do the same for others.
Simple but not easy. It is demanding and challenging. It is an incredibly high calling: live like Jesus.
So, what does the “so” mean? Maybe it simply introduces this summary. After all of the profound teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, here is what it boils down to. “You have heard all I have said. So, go and do for others what you would like them to do for you.” Do this and you will fulfil it.
In that case, the “so” would refer back to the all of the teaching that had preceded it.
But if it refers back to the words immediately before it, then I suspect Jesus is saying, “You have a loving heavenly Father who will give you what you ask for. You lack nothing. The resources of heaven are available to you. So go and do it.” If we have a Father who is willing to give us all that we need, we have no excuse. So go and do to others what you would want them to do to you. You can do it, so do it.
What would you like others to do for you? Can I suggest you take some time to reflect on that and write down what you think? What would I like others to do for me? Then choose to go and do those things for others.