Part one of a three-part writing based on Vista’s 2012 “Following Jesus” series
The gospel is “the good news.” In the Christian context, the good news is the message that Jesus carried to humanity on his Father’s (God’s) behalf. The gospel, then, is God’s simple message to humanity, yet it is profound: Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand! (Mt 3:2) Jesus’ message was clear: Change everything, I am now more nearby than ever before!
At a critical point in Jesus’ life during a teaching and discussion time at the Temple, Jesus reinforced and added depth to the message when He read aloud from the Ancient Writings a passage that stunned His listeners. Never before had anybody read from the Prophets something that was actually, literally, talking about themselves!
Luke 4:16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21 and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The question we are after here is, “What is it like that God is now nearby? That Jesus has come? What is expected with regard to Matthew 3:2, which says to repent…to change?”
If we are going to believe and follow this Messenger of God named Jesus, what ought we expect the demands and experience to be?
Jesus quite exhaustively answers that question in a treatise captured in part by Matthew often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon on the Mount record begins in Matthew 5, and although deeper depths could be plumbed in the first 17 verses, taking them broadly, they set up the harder practical teachings that follow in Matthew chapters 5–7.
Matthew 5:1–17, known as the Beatitudes, reveals a profound overarching Kingdom concept that begins our understanding not only of the rest of the Sermon, but as an answer to our question, “What is life like in the Kingdom…in following Jesus?”
Matthew 5:1 – Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them, saying:
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Verse three and verse 10 bookend the section with “kingdom,” as if to suggest what we can expect to occur within the bounds of the Kingdom of God as it come[s]…on earth (Mt 6:10).
What we find within the bookends are the entryway, the evidence and the expectation of the life according to Jesus.
The Entry point to the Kingdom of God is poverty of spirit (v3)…that is, a certain knowledge or sense that you are either unworthy or inadequate to live in God’s realm. Ironically, God is saying that that very perspective and attitude is what is necessary for access. Only the humble will follow Jesus.
Within the Beatitudes we also get an idea of the experience and evidence of the life Jesus is introducing (v4-9). He describes a powerful exchange between earth and heaven: The mourners are comforted, the meek are inheritors, the hungry and thirsty are filled, the merciful are shown mercy, the pure are shown God, and the peacemakers are adopted.
The evidence of a Kingdom life is one that is experiencing a continual, back-and-forth exchange, a “breathing,” a giving and receiving between earth and heaven – a divine exchange! As we live according to Jesus, the Spirit of God offers something profound to our soul, filling in our poverty. Slices of heaven show up in our heart. Eternity enters in and emerges from our life. Following Jesus is evidenced by a continual eternal transaction.
In addition to the beautiful exchange, there are aspects of life within God’s Kingdom not initially very inviting. Jesus says, that at least some of the result of following him will be verbal and physical mistreatment and lies about you.
Matthew 5:11 – Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
But “Why?” Why would someone react so violently to a Kingdom life? Why would a follower of Jesus incite such a backlash? Why would a God-centered life garner rejection?
Quite simply, a Godly life threatens the self-centered life we know, and if we have come to love our life apart from God, then any threat to our life must be rejected. The reason the ungodly threaten the Godly is because the Godly life threatens to undo the ungodly life!
The truth of this goes much deeper than we actually care to admit. The Godly life even threatens the life of the Godly. That is, what Jesus is about to teach will threaten to undo the life of anybody that chooses to follow Him…not just once…but their entire life.
In verse 11, Jesus essentially tells everyone that the Gospel threatens your self-serving life. Expect following Jesus to be a threat to your life as you know it.
As Jesus said and implied over and over, following Him is not for the faint of heart, but He strengthens the heart by forecasting great purpose and meaning.
Verse 12 introduces the beginnings of understanding why one might “let go” of the self-interested life that is threatened…transformed…by the Gospel: eternity.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven
Jesus redirects our focus and redefines value. Whereas living according to the world requires an endless and vain search for purpose and value by any means; following Jesus shifts purpose and meaning into an eternal perspective so that actions and attitudes are no longer selfishly and temporally motivated, but motivated by what has future worth and meaning. Whereas the gospel surely does threaten to take the rewards and securities of this life away, it promises greater ones in the endless life to come. When you follow Jesus, value is redefined as a future hope rather than a present satisfaction and comfort. (Faith in the resurrected eternal Jesus will be critical) Yet verses 13–15 project a current and earthly impact of the gospel, of following Jesus, on the world.
You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world…
Simply put, salt and light were the essential elements of the world Jesus lived in. They were essential for life itself. Jesus is saying quite clearly that just as salt and light preserved life on earth, the gospel, His followers, will be the spiritual life-giving agents of the world. Charitable work is good for humanity, but it doesn’t compare with the eternal work of the gospel for humanity. Following Jesus is the best thing one can do for humanity. And verse 16 tells us why: Because of the way followers live, some of those who don’t know God, will, in turn, see and honor God.
16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.