Sermon on the Mount
We had a phone call last Sunday afternoon that informed us that this could be my last week as pastor of Beckwith Baptist Church. As I said in the announcements, there’s a vote on Wednesday that will determine whether I’ll be around for six more months – or that this will be my last sermon – maybe ever. Many of you know the situation, so I’m not going to go over it here.
But, it’s a sobering thought. What if this really is my last sermon, ever? What if, after today, I go home, get told on Wednesday that I’m done, and then never stand in a pulpit again? Spending the week trying to figure out what that might look like has been strange and difficult – as all of life’s major transitions are.
I’m sure many of you have been through something similar. The death of a loved one, moving to another place far away, divorce, changing churches, some environmental disaster… all have a seismic impact on our lives. And it’s not always bad things that rock our little boats. Sometimes it’s good things – a new opportunity, a missions opportunity, meeting someone special, getting married, coming into some money, moving on to university, or starting a new career, are all events that cause stress and make us totter a bit, forcing us to find solid ground, get our bearings, and evaluate our lives.
For me, this week, the thought, “If this is my last sermon ever, what should it be?” has stuck in my mind. And as I chewed on it, one passage kept coming to mind – the Sermon on the Mount. It’s probably the best place I can think of to turn to find solid ground, true north, and a proper assessment of what our priorities should be.
Turn with me to Matthew 5-7 – the greatest sermon ever preached, given by the Lord Jesus while He sat on a hillside facing a magnificent view of the Sea of Galilee, to a huge crowd of people who had seen His miracles and wanted to know what He was all about. Jesus sat down to teach the small group that were committed to following Him – but the picture is of literally thousands of people all leaning over their shoulders listening in.
The Sermon on the Mount
If you’ve read this passage, then you’ll know there’s a lot going on here, and it’s very impactful – and there are a lot of perspectives on it. Some see Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as a list of instructions, the marching orders of their life, and check-list of ways to try to earn their way into heaven. Others see it as hyperbole, an over exaggeration of some unachievable ideal we should be shooting for, but can never achieve. Some see this as an instruction manual on how to be a super-Christian, better than everyone else, or think that it was only meant for the apostles, so it doesn’t apply to them. Some say we should be living these words out every day, while others teach that it only applies during the end times.
But what the Sermon on the Mount really is, is an inaugural address, a manifesto, a constitution, a sort of throne speech / state of the union address, where Jesus outlines what life in His Kingdom is all about. He, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, is looking at those who chose to follow Him – and those who were thinking about following Him – the nation He had founded when He chose Abram and Jacob and Moses so long ago – and told them what life in His Kingdom was supposed to look like, what He as King expected, what God as Creator expected, what the governing laws and judgments and priorities of His kingdom would be. The crowds had been schooled in the Pharisees version of what God’s ways were (which we’ve covered a lot of times so I won’t repeat it now) and here, Jesus gives a huge list of corrections.
If you’ve read it, you’ve probably noticed that Jesus goes through a lot of the Old Testament. He’s basically trying to rewire all the mess the Pharisees had created and give the proper interpretation and application of the Law and the Prophets. Why? So He could create a list of rules to live by? No…that’s what the Pharisees did. What Jesus was doing was giving people the recipe for an abundant, Godly life, full of peace, hope, joy, freedom, and forgiveness.
All they had heard before was about God’s anger and wrath, and how the only way to appease Him was through obeying depressing lists of joyless rules that made life miserable. They had been taught that anyone who was sick, oppressed, persecuted, poor, or miserable was clearly under God’s judgment. And that religion was a path to worldly health and wealth. Jesus corrects all of that.
At first, the Sermon on the Mount looks like a list of rules, but if you look closer, it’s actually a list of freedoms! It’s the words of a gracious and loving God showing His people how to live free of sin, vice, error, darkness, and fear of man. It’s teaching us how to really love people, and really connect with God – not just how to do religious stuff. It paints a picture of a God who knows us, loves us, even likes us as individuals, so much so that He wants us to have all the things our hearts desire – and is more than willing to give it. It’s a sermon full of unfiltered, unadulterated, clear, clean truth. No couching, no hemming and hawing, no giving two sides of the argument, no differing opinions, just the way of truth that leads to life – from the One who is “The Way, the Truth and the Life”.
Jesus kicks off the sermon with a bang, completely upending humanity’s entire understanding of how life works. He gives what we call “the Beatitudes”. Beatitude comes from the Latin word BEATUS which means “blessed” or “happy”, because that’s how they all start.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (5:3)
In other words, the citizens of the Kingdom He is about to describe, those who will be King Jesus’ workers and soldiers and priests, His adopted brothers and sisters who will be the co-heirs to the throne – will be people who realize they are spiritually bankrupt, unable to give anything of value to God, and who know they must absolutely depend on His mercy and grace for everything.
In one sentence Jesus blows their entire, corrupt, works based, honour based, hypocritical, religious system out of the water. He says, “My people, God’s true followers, aren’t the self-sufficient, arrogant, pious, holier-than-thou, popular, powerful, whitewashed-tombs you think are God’s favourites. God’s favourites, the blessed ones, the ones who have God’s ear, are those who know they have no good thing in them, no reason for God to love them, nothing to offer, and know they are wretched, sinful, and broken –but who know that every day they must depend on God for anything good, completely hoping in Him.”
And the rest of the Beatitudes, and really the rest of the Sermon on the Mount are about taking that first sentence apart. What does a humble, dependant, follower of God look like? Look at the rest of the beatitudes:
A citizen of God’s Kingdom mourns their sins, and the effects of sin in this world, and comes to God for their ultimate comfort. They don’t run to drink, drugs, sex, money, power, entertainment. They know their only real protection from sin is in the arms of God.
They are meek, or gentle, not lording power over others, but instead, serving them.
They are hungry for righteousness, thirsty for a clean, unpolluted soul.
They are merciful, showing undeserved kindness and forgiveness and patience to difficult people, treating them as they would want to be treated.
They are pure in heart. They don’t merely put efforts into looking good on the outside, but spend a lot more energy on asking God to purify their inner thoughts, motives, and desires.
They are peacemakers, overlooking the wrongs people do to them, and even putting themselves in places where there is strife and conflict, so they can infuse it with the love and forgiveness and the justice they’ve been shown by God.
They are the ones willing to face persecution, hate, reviling, gossip, slander, and all kinds of evil – doing battle for their King, entering the fray, taking the slings and arrows of the devil and the people that work for him –because their eye is on a greater prize, standing in the throne room of heaven and hearing, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
And you can see all these Beatitudes echoed throughout the rest of the sermon. Look at the next part about how the citizens of heaven are salt and light in the world. Salt isn’t seen when it’s at work, it’s humble in its influence. Light is always doing battle with the darkness, it’s brave in its influence.
Look further down to verse 21 about anger. Of course Jesus’ disciples get angry, just like God gets angry, but they know that what they do with that anger is what’s important. It’s not just about not hurting people, but about using that anger as fuel for righteousness.
Lust is similar. Just like getting angry isn’t something we can control, being attracted to someone isn’t either. It just happens. But godliness isn’t just about avoiding sleeping with them, it goes deeper. Lust isn’t about sex – it’s about controlling our appetites. Like our hunger for food, our sexuality isn’t something we can avoid – it can only be fed in a healthy, godly way. And the follower of Jesus hates sin so much, hungers for righteousness so much, longs for a pure heart so much, that they are willing to do anything, go to extremes, to avoid letting sin take residence in their heart.
And Jesus continues in verse 33when He talks about oaths. Godly people shouldn’t need external forces like contracts and oaths and promises and rules to make us keep our word. A Kingdom follower doesn’t need to lie, manipulate, or pretend. We know that words matter, that God is our provider, that we have inherent value, and that God is watching everything we do –knowing even our thoughts and motives – and so we simply live honestly.
The same with revenge or our enemies in verse 38. Think back to the description of a Christian in the Beatitudes. Before you stands your enemy. They’ve hurt you or someone you love, have lied to you or about you, have created a lose-lose scenario for you, and are standing there laughing. Now, if you are the king of your own universe, then you get to be judge and jury and executioner too. If your identity is in your pride, then you’re going to want to restore it at all costs. And so your anger will cause you to retaliate, seek revenge, dole out punishment. But, if you are poor in spirit, meek, merciful, a peacemaker who is willing to be treated badly for righteousness’ sake, then you’re going to have a completely different response. You’ll pity them, trust God to deal with them properly, forgive as you have been forgiven, let it go as Jesus let you go, give grace and love to this undeserving person, just as Jesus gave grace and love to an undeserving you.
Matthew 5 isn’t about rules – it’s about finding freedom in doing things God’s way. Religion, pride, out of control anger, lust, revenge, hatred – those are terrible burdens that ruin your life. Here, Jesus teaches us how to live free of those burdens through a life of love and grace.
Not turn to Matthew 6. I think Matthew 6 is probably my favourite part of the Sermon on the Mount – and not just because I wrote a book on it. It’s why I wrote a book on it!
A lot of Matthew 5 was action based. Do good deeds. Here’s what to do if you get angry. Here’s what to do if you lust. Here’s what to do if you have marriage problems. Here’s what to do at work and with social agreements. Here’s how to deal with difficult people.
But now the emphasis changes from things “to do” to “don’t do this”. I want to read this section a bit closer because, for me, it’s really applicable for today. Should this be my final sermon, I think the most helpful thing I could leave you with are the Lord’s words in Matthew 6. So let’s read them together:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (6:1–4)
Again, this is obviously an indictment of the Pharisees, but also of everyone who thinks that God wants an external show of how religious you are. It’s a message to everyone who comes to church (or the Temple in their case) with anger, lust, fear, judgementalism, worry, pride, corruption in their heart, habitual sins that have taken over their lives – but have no intention of dealing with it. They walk into service with a heart crusted over with sin, and so everything in the service – the songs, the message, the scriptures, the people serving them, the opportunity to give generously, the chance to serve others, the needy people around them, the helpful people around them, the reminder in the Lord’s Supper and the preacher’s petition to repent – everything that is designed to help them to meet Jesus, to connect with God, to be renewed by the Holy Spirit – all bounce off and have no effect. Sure, they sing, and bow their heads, and chat afterward, ask how you’re doing, even bring a box of cookies to share, but none of the spiritual stuff affects their heart, lives, decisions, or souls. They always leave the same way they came in, unchanged, unrepentant, unaffected – ironically, usually thinking themselves better than everyone in the room who actually wept over their sin, shared their weaknesses, asked for help, sang with gusto even though they don’t have a good voice, who showed they didn’t know something by asking a question – they mock those people as weak and stupid – and leave church with an even harder heart.
Jesus says here, and really all over scripture in the Old Testament and New, that He couldn’t care less about you attending church, singing songs, or doing any other religious actions if you are not intimately connected to Him.
God hates hypocrites: people who pretend to be something they are not – religious hypocrites most of all. Which is why Matthew 7 – and so many of New Testament letters – spend so much time warning His followers to watch out for wolves that pretend to be sheep, thorn bushes that pretend to be grapevines, clouds without water, wandering stars that steer ships to the rocks, shipwrecking reefs hidden under the water. People who look like prophets, teachers, and miracle workers, but are actually liars and workers of lawlessness, sent by Satan to destroy the faithful and corrupt the church.
Perhaps the ultimate religious hypocrite is the one who is a hypocrite in prayer. Look at verse 5,
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
How can we know who these hypocrites are? Because they love to be seen as pious people. Their whole identity is wrapped up in people thinking how good they are. These are people who attend church, teach classes, serve on committees, play in the worship band, go on mission’s trips, and do all the Christian stuff – buy they’re not actually Christians. They’re not “poor in spirit”, they’re prideful and unrepentant. They don’t “mourn” their sin, they hide it. They’re not “meek”, they actually try to make sure they have the positions of highest influence. And they’re certainly not “merciful”, their critical, judgmental, and wrathful against anyone who opposes them. If you ever wonder if you’re dealing with a religious hypocrite, just imply that perhaps there might be some sin in their heart, that they might have the wrong motives, or that they’re not spiritually qualified for a position. This type of person will absolutely flip out.
I can’t tell you how many of these people I’ve served with, or watched serve, on various committees and boards over the past 20 years of ministry – and I’m sure you have too. They’re like a cancer on the church, and I’ve watched them ruin a lot of ministries, churches, pastors, and turn a lot of faithful, young Christians away from the church.
Worrying About Money Ruins the Church
The final part I want to go through, I think, is especially poignant for this church. I’ll leave Matthew 7 for you to study yourself, but I think verses 19-34 address something that I’ve heard talked about almost endlessly for the last 20 years: worrying about money. It really has been a non-stop topic for as long as I’ve been a pastor. It seems as though Christians believe that God will provide for them at home, at work, for missionaries, for their friends, their family, and every other ministry – but when it comes God miraculously providing for their church, suddenly all that faith goes out the window. It’s all impossible. There’s no money, no hope, no faith, no possibility of God providing.
They look at the budget and the money is a little down, and the response is always the same. For 16 years I’ve been attending church board meetings, and the response is always the same. Panic, argue, tighten the fist, and stop ministering to people.
If someone came to you as an individual and said, “I’m really worried about my finances. I’m losing my job, I’ve got bills to pay, and I don’t know what to do.” Or they said, “I believe God is calling me to go to the mission field, but I need to raise a bunch of money, and I have no idea what to do…” What would you say?
Pray about it. Trust God. Share your needs with friends. Keep tithing and be extra generous with your money, because God loves a cheerful giver and honours those who trust Him. Right?
Do you know what I hear from church boards, trustees, and church meetings? It’s the same thing every time: “What if we need to replace the roof? What if the furnace quits?” and the next thing is always the same: “We’d better cut all our funding to missionaries, stop doing outreach, kill our community programs, stop benevolent giving, stop buying Sunday school material for the kids…” Suddenly the physical building is far more important than any believer, ministry, or needy person in the community. Essentially, the church stops trusting God, stops being generous, stops doing ministry, tighten their fists and panics. Then they find a scapegoat and sacrifice them, because that’s easier than talking about the systemic sins within the whole church. Every single time.
You’d think that, as a group of believers, that when a financial crisis hits there would be more prayer meetings, more serving others, more generosity, right? That they’d unite together as a church family and bang on the doors of heaven, begging for mercy and provision. Nope. Suddenly, every meeting is about money. In fact, prayer meetings are cancelled in favour of meetings to talk about money. The elders, pastors, deacons, and ministry leaders are told to step aside, while the treasurer and trustees take up the time to talk about how dire things are, how desperate things are, and how hopeless things are. I’ve watched it happen so many times.
Then the younger Christians start to get confused and upset. Why are we talking so much about money? Why did we stop doing things for the community? Why did we stop helping missionaries? Why are there so many budget meetings, and why is everyone so upset all the time? So they leave the church.
Then the generous Christians, the faithful tithers, start to see that a bunch of people int eh church, the ones in leadership, don’t actually care as much about worship, evangelism, missions, and discipleship as they thought. It turns out that when the rubber meets the road, it’s really the building, the roof, the furnace, and the bills that matter. So they leave the church.
Then even the faithful Christians start to get frustrated. They want to do ministry. They want to pray. They want to talk about Jesus and trust God for help. They don’t want to argue about money and bewail how hopeless everything is, turning on each other to toss accusations and place blame. But they are told to be quiet, to not be so naïve. And, eventually, they leave the church too. Again, I’ve seen time and again.
And all that’s left are a group of people who talk about money, blame others for their problems, talk about the good old days, and spend their meetings talking about what they really reassure: the roof, the furnace, the floors, the carpets, the parking lot… and occasionally someone says what they really need is to “get some young people” into the church. I’ve seen it over, and over, and over…
But, let’s read Matthew 6:19-34 and see what Jesus has to say about this:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
The secret sauce for a joyful, abundant, growing Christian – and a joyful, abundant, and growing church – is there in verse 33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
Instead of worrying and arguing and blaming and panicking – the simple questions are these: “What does God tell us to do? What does Jesus want from us? How should a kingdom citizen react to this situation? Is our King, our God, trustworthy, and kind, and generous, and helpful? If so, what does He want from us? What is the most righteous thing to do right now?” Even if it’s hard. Even if it’s counter intuitive. Even if it’s costly.
If we want “all these things to be added to us”, whether in our individual life, our family life, or our church life, we must ask, “What is the most righteous, godly, biblical, Christian thing that I can do, right now?” Is it to sell our possessions and give generously? Is it to seek or grant forgiveness from someone you’ve been avoiding? Is it removing an obstacle or temptation from your home because it’s corrupting your heart? Is it changing your schedule and priorities so you can pray and read and serve more? Is it to get on your knees and repent for the sins you’ve been keeping secret? Is it confessing your sins to another believer in hopes of getting healing and help? I don’t’ know what it is for you, but whatever it is, whatever the Spirit has been telling you for so long, that you’ve been ignoring and refusing – choose today to seek it first, as a Kingdom follower, a disciple of Jesus, and pursue that righteousness with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength… and trust that God will meet your needs “far more abundantly than all you might ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20) because that’s exactly what He promises.
Over the past couple years, going back all the way to September 2012, we have been working our way through the Gospel of Mark – and have made it all the way to Mark 7. My resolution this year, even though it is going to feel like lightspeed (to me), is to finish the Gospel of Mark before the end of Summer.
But since we’re in the Lent season, we’re going to do things a little out of order. For the next while, up until Easter, we are going to be working our way through Passion Week. Each Sunday we’ll be talking about a day in the life of Jesus Christ – the last week before His crucifixion and resurrection. Today, I want to talk a bit about Sunday and Monday. I also want to note that this series was inspired by an amazing book called “Crucify: Why The Crowds Killed Jesus“.
Up until this point, and for the past three years, Jesus has been wandering from town to town, preaching, teaching and announcing and explaining the message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:1). Everything has been about explaining that message. What has been fulfilled? What is the Kingdom of God? What is repentance? What is belief? What is the Gospel?
Over the last three years the teaching has been getting more and more specific. When he started, He was explaining His position as the fulfiller of Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah. Then He confirmed His claims through miracles. At first the messages and miracles were private – to individuals and the followers of John the Baptist, changing water to wine and healing small town people in their homes. But His reputation grew quickly and the crowds grew larger and larger.
After a time He was forced to teach from a boat to shores full of people, climb mountains to address thousands gathered to hear Him and have their sick healed. The pressure became relentless so He was forced to hide from the crowds and wake up extremely just so He could get some quiet time.
From these crowds He chose a select group of people, whom we call the Apostles, that would receive special training and a more intimate communion with Him. But even they didn’t fully grasp what He was doing. He had been making messianic allusions all along – explaining that He was intending to go to Jerusalem and suffer, even die, at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities. No matter how many times He explained it, no one really understood, no one really believed Him.
For them, He is a King, the Messiah, the Great Prophet, the Healer, the Miracle Worker who can make the lame walk, the blind see, and food materialize out of nowhere. Sure, He had some hard things to say as He preached things like the Beatitudes (What does “blessed are the poor” even mean?), or “Love your enemies”, or “God prefers when you pray privately and no one sees you”, or “if your eye causes you to sin, cut it out”, but this kind of extremism is to be expected from a prophet, isn’t it?
And He certainly had some strange habits for a future King. He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. He performed miracles for Roman centurions and talked to Samaritans. But so what? He had undeniable power and authority from God, had gathered thousands of followers, and was now marching His way towards Jerusalem!
Surely this would be the One to finally conquer the Romans, destroy their enemies, elevate the Jewish people to be the greatest nation on earth… and have each of His twelve apostles at His side – each on a throne, with a province to rule, the world at their feet – I mean Jesus’ feet… yeah, Jesus’ feet.
Let’s read the events of Sunday from Mark 11:1-11:
“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’’ And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’ And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
The Triumphal Entry
Many Bible’s call that part “the Triumphal Entry”. We usually commemorate that day on Palm Sunday, which is 4 weeks from now. It was quite a day, and everything that happened, was exactly what His followers wanted to happen!
Imagine the intensity of the crowd. Jesus slept the night before in the house of His friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus – who many followers know because Lazarus’ resurrection. The disciples bring the animal for Jesus to ride on – a very important sign to everyone since it fulfilled the messianic prophecy of Zecheriah 9:9:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Everyone knew what Jesus was doing and claiming – to be royalty, the king of Jersualem, the Saviour of the city and its people – but they were completely mistaken as to why.
The Passover was only a week away, Jerusalem’s most popular event, and the city is already filling up with visitors – not to mention the entourage following Jesus. The multitude grows as the colt slowly makes the two mile journey from Bethphage to Jerusalem. The anticipation grows with every step with people laying down cloaks waving palm branches like flags in a royal procession.
Soon the large crowd following Jesus joins with the large crowd coming out of Jerusalem – even Jesus’ enemies, the Pharisees, have come to see the spectacle. The crowd’s excitement can’t be bottled up anymore and they shout, “Hosanna in the highest!”
“Hosanna” means “Save us! Please Save us! God save us!” They are shouting their expectation of Him to usurp King Herod and overthrow the Roman oppression of Emperor Tiberius. Some even shout the traitorous slogan: “Blessed is the King of Israel!” which could get you killed under Roman law.
The Pharisees hear this and are terrified. In Luke we read that they tell Jesus to command His followers to be silent! If the Romans hear this they could send their army, start arresting and killing people as rioters and traitors to the emperor. But they couldn’t be stopped, and eventually even the Pharisees give up trying (John 12:19).
The telling of the story in Luke gives us a glimpse into what was going through Jesus’ heart and mind at this time. As the crowds yelled adulations, His enemies were embarrassed, and the whole city chanted praise to Him, it says:
“And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.’” (Luke 19:41-44)
He’s looking into the eyes of the people, and knows their future. The gate He’s entering, the walls He’s passing, the people who are shouting, in mere days will turn on Him. They will reject their King and their Messiah. And then, in less than 40 years, in 70 AD, Emperor Titus and his Roman army will have enough of this ridiculous city with its rebellious people, will sack the city, and destroy everything, killing and enslaving hundreds of thousands of people.
He’s not revelling in His popularity, He’s weeping over the foolishness and rebelliousness of the people before Him. They just don’t get it. His words come in sobs. And what happens next, no doubt, comes as a surprise to everyone. Look at verse 11.
“And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
The multitudes around Him are on bated breath , waiting for a word from their Saviour, their King, their Messiah. And what does He do? He leaves. He doesn’t walk up to the palace and demand an audience. He doesn’t perform any miracles. He doesn’t teach. He breaks into sobs of lament, gets to the Temple, looks around at everything, and then… walks away.
This helps to explain what happens the next day – on Monday.
Let’s read from verse 12:
“On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it. And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, ‘Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.’ And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.”
On the way to Jerusalem we see Jesus do something very peculiar and highly symbolic. It’s no coincidence that the Cursing of the Fig Tree and the Cleansing of the Temple come next to each other. Many times in the Old Testament prophets use the fig tree as a symbol of Israel. scripture Mark is showing us something here.
Jesus is hungry and sees a fig tree with green leaves. He walks up to a tree expecting to find the little, edible buds that come out around March and April, before they fall off and turn into figs. The green leaves implied the presence of something more. This tree had leaves and no buds. No buds meant no fruit.
Jesus curses the tree that looks to everyone like it was healthy and could nourish those who come by. He curses the tree that, from afar, makes the promise of health and fulfillment, but that, up close, is fruitless – an utter disappointment.
And then he walks into Jerusalem. Jesus comes into a very different city than He had left on Sunday. The fervour of the previous day had abated and now it was time to get down to some serious preparations and shopping. Things had to be ready for the fast approaching Passover – which is why there were so many retailers in the temple courts.
The city was in full bloom, activity everywhere, a flurry of religious activity. Pharisees prayed on street corners, women ran to and fro busy in their preparations, men selling religious requirements and exchanging foreign currency at exorbitantly inflated prices. The noise was overwhelming, and Jesus’ heart was still heavy from the day before.
Not a thing had changed since He had cleansed the temple two years earlier. They had all come back and were just as fervent in their sales as before. The poor are being abused, the sick are forgotten, the needful pushed aside so more money could be made, and the religious machine could move forward.
Jesus is heart-sick at this situation. His closest followers don’t understand what He’s doing. The religious elites have forgotten the meaning and spirit of the Law He gave Moses. The Temple, the place that God had set aside so that the world could come and meet with Him, had been turned into a religious market designed to prey upon those who were meant to come and worship.
And Jesus has had enough.
“It is His last opportunity to demonstrate what His Father feels about the religious system that operates to keep the powerful in power, the weak in bondage, and the nation in self-serving blinders. He grabs the sides of tables and flips them over. He kicks the chairs of those selling pigeons at the expense of widows and orphans.” (Crucify: Why the Crowd Killed Jesus, Pg 226)
It’s the same as the cursing of the fruitless fig tree. Jerusalem, and its Temple, looks like they can satisfy the spiritual needs of its people, but it can’t. It’s all show and no substance. A mile wide and an inch deep. They were so caught up in religious activity that they forgot to feed the people. It was empty of anything good – nothing but green leaves.
The current reality of what Jesus was looking at “is so far removed from His Father’s intention that it compels Jesus to react.” (ibid)
Application: A Personal Cleansing
You can already guess at the application today – and it’s something that God has been working in my heart for a while now. In fact, before I started preparing for this sermon, I was asked to share a devotional with some area pastors, and I had come up with the same message to them – though I didn’t figure it out until I started my sermon prep. Unbeknownst to me, the lessons of Sunday and Monday have been stirring in my heart for some time.
And to close today, I want to read to you what I wrote to this group of pastors because I believe it applies to all of us today:
The heart, motivations and character of the worshipper is paramount to God – not the motions and methodology of our ministries. It doesn’t matter how right we get it, how great our churches are, how amazing the music, how far our reach, or how many people we get in the door. If our hearts (and the hearts of our people) are not connected to God, all that we have done it utterly meaningless.
I’m convinced that this is the reason we are not seeing revival in our churches – because we’re trying to find our salvation through methodology. We, the pastors and the churches, are not unlike the hypocritical Pharisees who conduct our rituals in public, open our doors, show off our religion and the trappings of our spiritual ceremonies – but they have not been energized by spiritual consecration, suffering obedience, and private prayer. A few people may be in prayer before we conduct our ceremony, but in my experience, is literally perfunctory – meaning “carried out with a minimum of effort or reflection.”
We give God our perfunctory prayer before the service and music practice, our perfunctory scripture reading at the right time, our perfunctory gathering of the offering, our perfunctory singing of the songs, our perfunctory attention to the sermon, standing up and sitting down when we’re supposed to…. We know it must be done, and we are doing it in obedience, but are we not just like the Israelites from Isaiah 1 who are going through the motions, doing the right thing, saying the right words, but the hearts of our people – and the ministers, elders, deacons, teachers – are in fact far from God? Are not our churches, pulpits, choirs, and pews not full of banging gongs and clanging symbols?
We are so used to the system we have come up with to worship God that we can go through all our religious activity – prayer, bible reading, study, fellowship, visitation, and worship – without even having to think about it. Everyone knows what must be done, when it must be done, and who must do it – and any deviation from the plan causes our little canoe to wobble precariously as people grump about how they “feel” and how they “want to be fed”.
Part of us (part of me) believes that if we keep working the methods, keep performing the ceremonies, that at some point God will bless us. I’m slowly learning that this attitude is fruitless. We need to be cleansed.
I am convicted so deeply these days that I am a mile wide and an inch deep – and I don’t think I’m alone. We pastors are nice people, full of bible knowledge, able to answer a multitude of questions about life, the universe and everything, faithful in our obedience’s, even hard workers – but I don’t think that’s enough.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, every verse takes away our methods and forces us to stay away from perfunctory obedience. In the Beatitudes we see Him stripping us of every worldly help as He says Blessed are the “poor, mourning, meek, hungry, merciful, pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted and the reviled.”
In that Jesus strips our ministries of thinking revival will come through riches or emotional displays of happiness. He strips us of believing revival will come through the spectacle of worldly consumerism and demonstrations of how clever we are. He tells us to be meek and takes away belief that revival will come by the force of our own will. He refuses to give us satisfaction, knowing that spiritual revival will not come to the satisfied. He smashes our idols and tells us that revival will not come if we bend the truth and partner with the world. He strips us of comfort, of safety, and even of friends as He tells us that following Him will require us step into a warzone, be amazingly costly, and make a lot of people many people angry. And Jesus’ path of cleansing and away of worldly methods and thinking continues throughout the sermon. He cursed the fruitless tree, He cleansed the Temple, and He cleanses us when we read His Sermon on the Mount.
Being “salt” and “light” means we lose our right to privacy and spiritual contentment Loving our enemies means we are forced to always be the bigger person. Next Jesus strips us of a private thought life as he says adultery is happens in mind, and is not merely an action.
Jesus tells us that we must stay married – even to a horrible, neglectful, bitter, unhelpful, selfish spouse – and that we have to serve them, love them, and give more and more to them every day. Some are stripped of the refuge of marital love.
Jesus says that every word we say matters – we are stripped from meaningless conversation or blowing off unimportant things that we foolishly agreed to.
Jesus says we have to “turn the other cheek”! Which means even if we are wiser, smarter, stronger and more right than our enemies– and could turn our enemies inside out – we aren’t allowed. We must let them strike us again.
I read the words of Jesus, and the actions of Christ as He curses the green fig tree and cleanses the temple, and I’m deeply convicted about the overwhelming depth of my sin and the personal responsibility I take for the lack of revival in my heart, my family, my church, my town and my nation. In a lot of ways, it is my fault. I’m just like that green tree, and those who used religion to their own selfish ends.
I can’t get away from that. I am so full of besetting sin and woeful spiritual inadequacy. The 7 Deadly sins of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony are the air I breathe and the food I eat. No matter how hard I try, I can’t get away from them. I desperately need Jesus to cleanse the temple of my heart.
I want to be a better man, and I want God to make much of Himself through me – through each of us – but I cry out with Paul:
“I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21-24)
And in the same measure I lean on the answer Paul gave; the only hope that He found:
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! … There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 7:25; 8:1, 31-35; 37-38)
What else can I do? What else can we do? In Jesus I must put my hope. If we are to see revival, we all must put our hope in Him. Not in our methods, not in our own strength, not in our consistency, friendship, relationship or even our giftings – but in Christ’s power to overcome all of our sins and somehow work good for His glory instead.