Description / Transcription
O Lord, we want to be wise and not foolish. We want to be secure even when storms roll in. We want to build our house on a foundation that lasts, so help us now as Your Word is preached to be those who not only hear Your words but also do them. Help us to listen, to learn. Help us to obey. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
We come to the end Matthew chapter 7, the first of the four Gospels, the first book in the New Testament. The end of this Sermon on the Mount, actually the last words of the sermon itself were last week, but now we come to this summary and transition statement, just two verses, Matthew chapter 7, verses 28 and 29.
I suppose I end up saying this about a lot of passages, but these really are two of my favorite verses. They are wonderful to preach on and they’re wonderful for what they say about preaching and they’re wonderful for what they say about Jesus.
“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.”
It would be easy to overlook these two verses. The sermon is over, the preaching is done, the conclusion has been reached. At first glance, this looks like a mere transition statement and that’s part of what’s going on here. I said at the very beginning of this series that this, though famously is called the Sermon on the Mount, it’s one of five discrete sections of teaching in Matthew’s gospel, and they’re set apart very deliberately. All of these sections, significant blocks of Jesus’ teaching, are then followed by a similar transition statement. This is the first.
The next one is in Matthew 11 verse 1, “When Jesus had finished instructing His 12 disciples, He went on from there to teach and preach in their cities.”
Matthew 13:53: “And when Jesus had finished these parables, He went away from there.”
Matthew 19:1: “Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, He went away from Galilee, entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.”
Matthew 26, verse 1: “When Jesus had finished all these sayings, He said to His disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.'”
So this is the first of these five times after a significant block of teaching, we have a similar sort of transition statement, Jesus finished these things and here was the response, or He went and He left and He went on to the next place.
But let’s not treat these two verses as merely a transition statement, let alone as two throw-away verses to overlook. They are incredibly significant, both for what they say about preaching and more importantly what they say about the one here who is preaching, Jesus.
What a striking thing to be noted that Jesus, verse 29, taught them as One who had authority. Now just think about that word. If we’re honest, and you do some sort of word association, just what quickly comes to your mind if somebody drops into your brain the word “authority,” you likely think of something negative. Someone cracking down on lawlessness. You pick up the phone, “The authorities are coming to see you.” That doesn’t sound good. Or you figure you’re in trouble, “I’m going to bring you before the authorities.” Or maybe it speaks of someone who is haughty and arrogant, “This person thinks he has authority over me.” Or maybe you register it with abuse, “He wields his authority like a weapon.”
We tend to hear that word and think of something negative, something oppressive, something undesirable. And sadly, in this world, we have many examples of bad authority, but as has been said many times, the antidote to bad authority is not no authority, it is good authority.
It has always been the characteristic of great preaching that it is heralded forth with authority. Paul calls himself, to Timothy, “a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher.” Those three words are not identical; overlapping, but not identical. Apostle is a unique role, a sent-out one, a messenger from Christ, an emissary of the Gospel. A teacher, that’s part of what we do here. Jesus is teaching. But also to preach is that word we might translate as a herald, to say “Hear ye, hear ye, we have a message from the king.”
It has always been the characteristic of great preaching that it comes with authority. That is, with a directness, a clearness, it is unafraid, and it is confident. In fact, it is that sort of teaching of God’s Word which on the one hand repels and on the other hand attracts. It is attractive to people who want to hear a word from God, who are tired of all of the cacophony of noises that come to them on their phone and on the television and from the newspapers, if you still know that those are. They want to hear from God.
And it’s also what repels. Hmm, I don’t like that that man seemed so loud, so direct, so sure of himself. And of course it is not that the preacher ought to be sure of himself, but ought to be sure of the One that he is preaching and the book from which he is preaching. If a man gives a short talk, tells a few stories, speaks in vague generalities, no one will mind. No one will be offended and no one would drop everything to hear this word.
There is little wonder why churches which jettison the bold, unashamed preaching of the Gospel do not grow. Now that doesn’t meant that just by preaching the Gospel you can be assured that you grow. There are all sorts of many cultural factors and success comes in many different ways, and sometimes it is the Lord’s desire to have a winnowing effect on His Church. But we have seen it time and time again, in many mainline denominations, what seems to be very smart initially, “Aha, let’s tell people what they want to hear.” Well, they like it initially, and then they realize, “I can hear this same thing without giving 10% of my money away, without giving of my time, without having to get up out of bed on Sunday morning. Why would I come to hear what I already have?”
So make no mistake. Preaching with authority will repel some, they’ll say this is absolutely not what I want, and it will attract others. There’s that famous saying which I’ve shared before, and if it’s not true, it should be true. Benjamin Franklin, listening to George Whitfield, and when it was asked of Benjamin Franklin, “Why do you go to hear Whitfield preach? You don’t believe anything that he says, Franklin is said to have replied, “I know, but he does.” The fact that Whitfield would preach with such authority, such confidence in his word, would draw even a skeptic like Franklin. Whether Franklin said that or not, it is demonstrably true that he was attracted to hear Whitfield preach, though he was not an evangelical Christian. He spoke with great authority.
I have in my study this massive series, I think seven volumes, on the history of the preaching and reading of Holy Scripture, this magisterial set of volumes, each one got longer and longer, put together by Hughes Oliphant Old, who has gone to be with the Lord now. And in the last volume, The Modern Church, he writes about some people that you would know and some people who are still alive, and I always found his chapter on John MacArthur to be somewhat humorous and sad and instructive. Hughes Oliphant Old, that’s the author, is listening to, he goes through, he does a chapter on Tim Keller, a chapter on Sinclair Ferguson, people you would know, and he has this one on John MacArthur, and he’s listening to a series of sermons from the Gospels about exorcisms, about casting out demons.
He says, this is the author, “The place where I have always had the greatest trouble is this whole matter of exorcism. I really do not believe in Satan, demonic spirits and demon possession. Maybe I ought to, but I don’t. I’m willing to agree that I may have been too strongly influenced by the intellectual world in which I was brought up to fully grasp the full teaching of Scripture, but that is the way it is. What is more than clear to me after listening to these sermons is that those who can take the text the way it is seem to make a lot more sense of it than those who are always trying to second guess it. Surely one of the great strengths of MacArthur’s preaching is his complete confidence in the text.”
And this could be said about many people, but here’s what he says: “Let us look for a brief moment at our preacher as an orator. My first impression is that he has little to offer from the standpoint of the art of oratory. His rhetoric is terribly out of date. Maybe he knows something, however, the rest of us don’t.”
And here’s how he concludes the chapter: “Why do so many people listen to MacArthur? This product of all the wrong schools. How can he pack out a church on Sunday morning in an age in which church attendance has seriously lagged? Here is a preacher who has nothing in the way of a winning personality, good looks, or charm. Here is a preacher who offers us nothing in the way of sophisticated homiletical packaging. No one would suggest that he is a master of the art of oratory. What he seems to have is a witness to true authority. He recognizes in Scripture the Word of God, and when he preaches, it is the Scripture that one hears. It is not that the words of John MacArthur are so interesting as it is that the Word of God is of surpassing interest. That is why one listens.”
That would be a great compliment if I were to resemble that remark. No winning personality, good looks or charm. No sophisticated homiletical packaging, but a witness to true authority. Not that what this preacher has to say is so interesting but that the Word of God is relentlessly interesting.
Think of everything that they might have marveled at. Everything that the crowds and on the mountainside might have noted. “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at His teaching for He was teaching them as one who had” intelligence? He certainly did. Creativity? Storytelling. We often think of Jesus as the master storyteller with His proverbs and His illustrations. What if they had marveled at His humor? His empathy? His rhetoric? His oratory? His scholarship? His learning? As important as some of those may be, none of those are mentioned. The one singular effect of Jesus’ teaching, the one thing they walked away muttering to themselves, is that man spoke with authority.
In fact, there’s a growing theme in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus is the one who possesses this perplexing authority. If you have your Bibles open, look at chapter 9, verse 6, for example: “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth and forgives sins… He tells the paralytic, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and go home.'”
Verse 9 [sic]: “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.”
And then the next chapter, 10 verse 1: “He called to Him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits.”
And then towards the end of His ministry, they question where this authority has come from, chapter 21:23: “And when He entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to Him… “By what authority are you doing these things…?”” and of course Jesus asks them a question, which they refused to answer, and so He says, ““Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.””
This will be a growing theme throughout the Gospel and here we have it for the first time, here at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, this recognition from all who heard Him there is something unique about Jesus and it centers on His unparalleled authority.
Notice the comparison back in chapter 7, “not as their scribes.” Who were the scribes? Scribes had a long history in Israel. Over the years they acted sometimes as secretaries, they transcribed legal contracts. They were official compilers for the military. The scribe was a person of education, often a person of some financial means. By Jesus’ day, the scribes were teachers of the law, and that meant two specific functions. Just to put it in terms we would understand, we might think of the scribes as professors and lawyers.
So they were professors. They were professional students of the Torah. These were seminary professors, academics. They studied, transcribed, codified. They passed on the oral traditions. They knew how to write journal articles, how to read the best of the literature. They were scholars of the Word.
They were also lawyers. The two terms, scribes, lawyers, are used interchangeably in the Gospels. That means as scribes they were responsible not just for the interpretation and writing about the law, but for the administration of the law. So they were the ones who would go before the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the Jewish religion, and they would decide the cases and they would bring forth precedents.
We get an example of this in an early document called the Mishnah. This is, I’ve got one on my shelf, it’s this big, thick book. A whole series of histories and sayings and back and forth between Jewish rabbis about the laws of the Torah. Now the Mishnah, you have to be careful when using it because it dates to after the time of the Gospels, but it does relay various traditions and controversies that were already current at the time of the Gospels. It just gives you a sense for the sort of work that the scribes were doing.
So I pulled up, almost at random, this is from a book in the Mishnah called Shabbat, that is Sabbath, so these are Sabbath instructions, and this is from chapter 2. Just listen. It’s so complicated and minute that it’s hard to follow, but you’ll get the sense. Here’s what they write in the Mishnah: “With what do they kindle the Sabbath light and what do they not kindle it?” So here’s the discussion: What sort of wick can you use for a candle on the Sabbath, because you can’t light a candle on the Sabbath, you need to light it Friday night and you want the right sort of wick that will last all the way through the Sabbath so you have light. So there’s all these instructions on the sort of candle you can use.
“They do not kindle with cedar fiber, uncarded flax, raw silk, wick of bast, wick of the desert, or seaweed. Or with pitch, wax, castor oil, oil that is burned, grease, or tallow. Nahum the Mede says: They kindle the Sabbath lamp with melted tallow.” That is beef or sheep fat. “But the sages say all the same is that which is melted and that which is not melted they do not kindle with it.”
Well, what about a festival day? “Rabbi Ishmael says: They do not kindle the Sabbath lamp with tar,” probably because tar would smell, “but the sages permit all kinds of oil: Sesame oil, nut oil, fish oil, coelacanth oil, tar, and naphtha. However, Rabbi Tarfon says: They kindle only with olive oil.”
They go on in the next section: Which sort of wick of cloth can you use? “Rabbi Eliezer says that a wick twisted around with cloth is susceptible to uncleanness and so you cannot use a Sabbath lamp with it because the clothing may have uncleanness from some sort of human secretion so you can’t use it, but Rabbi Akiva says it is unsusceptible to uncleanness and you can kindle a lamp with it.”
And on and on it goes. We’re liable to roll our eyes and say how silly, but no, we have respect for this tradition, trying very hard to understand exactly how to apply the minute instructions in the Torah to their ever-changing lives. This gives you a sense for what the scribes did. Rabbi Akiva says that, Rabbi Eliezer says this. They were attorneys, they were academics.
The best parallel today might be a law professor who is called upon as an expert witness before the Supreme Court. He talks about case law and precedents and legal statutes and compared with appellate court decisions, and then various statements from the original intent of the Founding Fathers.
Of course, lawyers and professors today are not just like scribes in Jesus’ day and I happen to like professors very much and I also like lawyers, too. But it does give you a sense for what they did. They were taking the law seriously. They took their religion seriously. But as can happen in a discipline like theirs, some of the scribes began to miss the forest for the trees. They lost sight of the bigger picture. The faith they passed on had lost much of its power and vigor.
In one sense, this is because the scribes had a tendency to become little more than legalistic antiquarians. May it never be so of God’s people. Legalistic antiquarians, that is, they parse out simply what does this person say and this theologian and this rabbi, and all they’re doing, there’s no power left. What was perfectly legitimate and good to look at their tradition can turn into nothing but empty ritual. So it becomes a very sophisticated, intellectual exercise for smart people to compare this particular thing from Calvin and this thing from Turretin and this thing from Bavinck, all of whom I love and teach and read. But that’s what happened.
And in another sense, the scribes did not speak with authority because they did not have authority. Their authority came from understanding the tradition. That’s what they were. They were experts in being able to parse and quote one rabbi from the other. They could parse out the very minutiae of the law, but they did not speak like Jesus.
With the Sermon on the Mount our attention is drawn not just to what the preacher says, but who the preacher is. So, yes, we want preachers to preach with authority in our day. You can talk to the elders or other pastors, it’s one of the things I most commonly pray, when we gather there in that little prayer room before the service, and one of the things I most commonly pray is that God would give me the spirit, an unction from on high, to preach with authority, boldly from God’s Word, humbly from myself, is what I pray.
However, though the preacher ought to preach with authority, we must remember it is always a derived authority. My authority comes from confidence not in myself, but in the Word of God. It’s an authority that is meant to draw attention not to the preacher but to what is preached.
I remember in seminary some 20 years ago, I didn’t go to RTS but went to a different seminary. Had a wonderful experience there. But I remember in one of our preaching classes we had an exercise where we had to practice reading the Bible. It was a good exercise, because there’s a way to read the Bible that’s very dull and boring and confused, and then there’s a way that draws people in. But the professor was wanting us to be quite demonstrative and practice our gestures and our gesticulations, look it up, and he was saying, “No, no, I want you to work on what your gesture is here with this part of the word and what you’re doing when you say the word sheep or something.” At some point, one of our classmates said what I was thinking and I believe many others were thinking, he tried to say respectfully, “But, Professor, I know we’re practicing these gestures, but don’t we want them looking at their Bibles? Don’t we want them so nose deep into their Bibles that they’re missing all the gestures we’re doing as we read the Scriptures?”
Our authority is a derived authority. Happy to have you not look at me when we’re reading the Scriptures because you want to hear the Scriptures and see them read for yourself. The motto for anyone in ministry must be that of John the Baptist: He must increase, I must decrease.
It reminds me of that famous line from James Denney over a hundred years ago: “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.”
The aim as you leave any sermon, of course we’d be lying as pastors if we said we didn’t hope you liked the sermon, or you didn’t think it was a good sermon, that’s nice, but the thought is not that you would go home and say, “My, what a clever pastor we have,” but you would leave and think, “Oh, my, how Christ is mighty to save.”
So preaching from this pulpit is to draw attention away from the preacher to the Word of God and upward to Christ Himself. This sermon from the Sermon on the Mount, however, is different. For three chapters the quiet, outrageous, unrelenting, subversive focus has been on the person of Jesus Himself.
Go back to the beginning, chapter 5, verse 11: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account.”
Oh, oh, really, Jesus? So you’re the reference point here? People are going to be persecuted because of You?
Or verse 17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Really? Who talks like this? Why these statements, Jesus, about You and Scripture and You didn’t come to abolish the Scriptures? Why was that a question?
What pastor comes in for his candidating sermon, “First, I just want you to know, I didn’t come to overturn the Bible.” Oh, okay. Good clarification.
Why does Jesus have to say this? Why does He say all this business about I have not come? What do you mean, Jesus? I’ve come, not come. What? You just say I was born? I’ve started this itinerant ministry. Who speaks in this mysterious language of having come? Come from where? From whom? Come on, Jesus. Get off your high horse. We’ve all got a mom or dad. We know where you’re from, Nazareth or Bethlehem or some such place. What is with this I have come?
And then fulfillment language. Really, Jesus? You’re the climax? You’re the conclusion? Everything the prophets were pointing toward? You sure, Jesus? You’re not just another prophet? Not even the last of the prophets, maybe not even the greatest of the prophets? You fulfill all prophecy?
Think about the first recorded words in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus’ public ministry. He says there “the time is fulfilled.” Imagine someone starting their public ministry that way, their first sermon from the pulpit, “The end is here. It’s all been coming to this moment.”
But that’s how Jesus speaks. Verse 20: For I tell you.
Really? How did the prophets of old preface their remarks? “Thus sayeth the Lord.” Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you.”
Besides that, you have here in chapter 5 these six antitheses. “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you.” Of course, He’s not overturning Scripture, but He is correcting their tradition. “You’ve heard it was said in your traditions and your theologians upon your confessions, but I say to you, now listen to Me, I have the final word.”
What does Jesus say at the end of this sermon in chapter 7:21: ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and cast out demons in Your name, and do many mighty works in Your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me.’”
What an absolutely astounding passage for a Jewish man from Galilee to make. Jesus sets Himself up as the judge – I will declare to you.
Oh, really? And not only is He the judge, He is the criterion for judgment – “Did we not prophesy in Your name?” Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you.”
And then the sentence, the judicial sentence, is given with reference to Him. He says here’s the judgment upon the workers of lawlessness, depart from Me. Here’s your punishment. You don’t get to be with Me.
John Stott puts it like this: “Thus did the carpenter of Nazareth make Himself the central figure of the judgment day.”
Verse 24: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who builds his house on the rock.”
Verse 26: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be a foolish man who built his house on the sand.”
What a hopelessly egotistical thing to say. “You know what will make you really, really smart? Do everything I tell you to do. And you know what will make you really dumb, foolish, like your whole life will crash to the ground? Don’t listen to me.” But that’s how Jesus talked.
He was not just a commentator on the law. He was a legislator of the law. Not just a pointer, but the point.
The scribes spoke from authorities, Jesus preached with authority.
Some people want the Sermon on the Mount because they think with the Sermon on the Mount you can have this nice, ethical instruction, unalloyed by doctrinal formulation. Here we just get good advice. We just have a noble blueprint for a better world. You ever met people like that? Maybe that’s what some of you think – “I do love the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount. I get all of these great ethical teachings. Wouldn’t the world be a wonderful place if we lived like this?”
But listen. There is no way to get the ethical teachings of Jesus without being confronted by Jesus Himself.
John Stott tells the story of Stanley Jones, the Methodist missionary in India. How a Hindu professor once said to him, “The Jesus of dogma I do not understand, but the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount and the cross I love and am drawn to.”
Similarly, a Muslim teacher once told him he could not read the Sermon on the Mount without crying.
Today, you’ll meet many people, if in fact they’ve heard of the Sermon on the Mount, who would think, yes, if I want Jesus, I like this Jesus, turn the other cheek, don’t hate but love, pray, be wise, and go the extra mile. I can get used to this Jesus.
Until you pay attention and realize that the Sermon confronts us with more than an inspiring moral standard or a noble ethic of love, or a blueprint for world peace. The Sermon confronts us with Jesus Himself. You have to ask yourself the question – Who was this man? What was so special about Him? How could He say such things? Never spoke a man like this before. You cannot have your simple Jesus with beautiful, noble sentiments of ethics and no doctrine, nothing about this Jesus the Christ. Rubbish. It doesn’t work that way.
If you want the teaching of Jesus, you need to take the whole teaching. That means you have to look Jesus square in the eye and decide if you can listen and trust the man who is speaking to you. Because He will not let you off the hook. He will not let you just take these as a set of ethical inspirations. The relentless focus throughout the Sermon is who do you say that I am?
If you are drawn to these teachings, to this ideal, drawn to this sort of kingdom, drawn to the Sermon Jesus preached, you have to consider the preacher himself.
So how do you respond to the most famous sermon ever preached? Well, we’ve already noted that the crowds were astonished. Remember chapter 5, verse 1, what began teaching a group of disciples has now swelled to a larger number and there are crowds around Him and they’re astonished, amazed, jaw-dropping. They’re tweeting out all sorts of stuff. Hashtagging, Instagram, all the things. Look at this! Man, I can’t believe!
They’re blown away. Now that’s a start. Astonishment is probably better than where some of you are at, which is just bored silly with Jesus. But astonishment is not enough. It never is in the Gospels.
Remember, few in this crowd on the mountainside will follow Jesus. No one in this crowd fully understands who He is at this point. Almost none of them will stick to Him all the way to His death. They will scatter. Amazement is not the same thing as faith.
Or perhaps to put it in a Charlotte vernacular, friendliness to Jesus is not the same thing as faith in Jesus.
Astonishment is not the same thing as discipleship. No, you cannot just give a “yes” to the wise sayings, or a “yes” to His ethical standard, or a “yes” to the comforting truths, or a “yes” to the miracles and the power. All of that is meaningless without a “yes” to Jesus.
That’s how He preached the Sermon. That’s how Matthew ends the Gospel. You already know this. You’ve already read it.
Remember how I said that as the crowds are astonished at His authority, this is a growing theme in Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter 9 when He heals the paralytic they’re amazed at His authority, in chapter 10 He sends out the disciples with authority. You come to the passion week and they’re questioning Him by what authority. It’s this growing sense of puzzlement.
So you can see the great and intentional crescendo at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.”
We must not think of authority as something bad. It can be used for bad effects, we all know that, but it is profoundly a gift from God, and Jesus in His final words before His ascension, summarizes what has been given to Him as that chief characteristic. Authority.
So what does it look like? To say “yes” to the Sermon on the Mount? Well, it looks like all that Jesus says here at the end of Matthew 28. You obey Him as a disciple, you join with other disciples, that’s being baptized in the triune name, and then you make other disciples. That’s what it means.
But just note in closing verse 17 – Eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain, verse 17, and when they saw Him they worshiped Him, but some doubted.
Some doubted. Even here, even here. What more do you need, you might say. What more do you need? You’ve heard His teaching. The man died, crucified, buried, He rose, He is, you know, floating up. What more do you need? Some doubted? You’re not ready to worship Him yet?
But might the same thing be said about many of us in this country? What more do you need? How much more truth can you get? How many more sermons can you hear? How many more good Christian books can you read? How much more familiar with Jesus can you be? And yet some disinterested. Some indifferent. Some doubted.
No, this is the only truly acceptable response to the Sermon on the Mount. They saw Him, and they worshiped Him. The point is not just the authority, but the One who could preach with such authority. The One before whom all of us must bow, now or later when it is too late. If you are wise, you will do it now.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we thank You for Your Word, we thank You for this greatest sermon ever preached, and we pray that forever from this pulpit, in this room, in this space, the Word of God unashamed, rightly handled, would be proclaimed with authority. We pray that we would have ears to hear it, we would not be those wanting to have our itching ears tickled, but we would have ears to hear what you truly need to say to us, and as we hear, may we be directed not just to truths but to the One who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, the Lord Jesus Himself, in whose name we pray. Amen.