Day Eight: Matthew 5:31-32

“Anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and if someone marries a divorcée, he commits adultery.” Matthew 5:32

This might be the first section of the sermon that you approach as an undergraduate and think, “Well, but I’m not married, so I literally can’t get divorced! Good thing I don’t have to think about this.” While it might not be your present reality, it could one day be your reality, and even if not, marriage is of such importance to God that all of his people should seek to understand his heart for it more deeply.

It relates back to the last entry on the value of sexual intimacy for displaying what God’s heart towards his people is and what the joy and safety of his relationship with the community of Christians is like. Sexual intimacy is the most graphic depiction of this intimacy, but all of marriage is also a display. Marriage was designed to be a relationship built on unbreakable promise and unbreakable fidelity: to be the partner, friend, companion of another soul, to possess and be possessed by no one else except the spouse God has given you to. It reflects the unbreakable promise God makes to protect, love and guide his people forever, and the fidelity that a redeemed heart affectionately returns to her God.

This is why divorce is so evil: it defaces the unity that God established. Our culture treats it casually, selfishly, certainly because we have forgotten or never known the original intention for marriage.

As you continue to reflect from Day Seven on God’s goodness and design for sexual intimacy, reflect too on ways that marriage shows what his relationship to us is like. Write out some observations on how marriage does this, and also write out some ways that marriage falls short of showing what God and his Church are like. If you desire to marry someday, a good and noble desire, add to your regular prayer life requests that God would shape you into a person of good character, that he would transform you into a person who is empowered by him to seek the goodness of another above yourself.

Day Seven: Matthew 5:27-30

“Everyone who looks with lustful intent has already committed adultery in their heart.” Matthew 5:28

If there was ever a way to capture the danger of sexual sin, Jesus does it in these passages. He begins by affirming that the Old Testament forbids adultery, and then moves to declare that even looking for the purpose of lust is the same sin. The text describes looking at a woman lustfully, but there is nothing in Scripture that indicates that looking at a man lustfully is ok; it is equally understood as culpable.

This looking in order to lust encompasses a broad range of fantasizing, from watching pornography on the Internet to reading steamy fan-fiction, to old fashioned lingering looks at classmates that imagine something more. The accessibility of explicit sexual images today has made entrance into patterns of sexual sin not only easier, but more normalized. You may already be conditioned to not take this seriously, because everyone you know is doing it.

There’s nothing more serious than the hyperbole Jesus employs in 5:29,30. He declares that it would be better to lose two of your most important body parts rather than be condemned for sexual sin. Don’t kid yourself: playing around with sexual temptation is severely spiritually dangerous, and as a college student you are in the thick of opportunity to give in.

God doesn’t forbid adultery and the sexual sins that represent it because he’s a prude, or because he’s grossed out by sex. He forbids it precisely because he created sex to be a delightful, vibrant gift to be enjoyed in the safety of marriage, because only this allows sex to fulfill one of its main purposes: creating a picture of what the intimate love between Jesus and the Church looks like. The vulnerability, pleasure, and known-ness are just a small taste of what deep relationship with God is like, and we shatter the effectiveness of this image for ourselves and others as we habitually sin. Not only that, but we harden our hearts against the Lord who wants softness from us.

Sexual sin is often one of the most private, even shameful, sins and if you are caught in it, everything in you will rebel against confession and coming in to the light. Though it feels risky, it is less risky than what Jesus describes here. Find a safe, older believer to confess to, and set up a prayerful plan to seek how to avoid temptation by the power of the Spirit. Even if you’re not nor haven’t ever been felled by habitual sexual sin, educate yourself on the topic to prepare yourself well to stand and help others stand on your campus.

Remember that there is deep grace and help for entrenched sin in Jesus, and that he will never turn away the heart that mourns over sin. Remember too that he created all his boundaries for our good: explore in the Bible and with others where this goodness is, so that you can be empowered to say Yes to obedience by God’s power. Be ready to ask for and expect transformation as you draw near to Jesus, in the company of others.

Day Six: Day Six: Matthew 5:21-26

“But I say to you, anyone who is angry with a brother will be liable to judgment.” Matthew 5:22a

Jesus now turns in the sermon to some of the Law he was just defending, and he starts by addressing murder. He establishes with the crowd that they all knew God had declared murder wrong—and then he goes a step further. By using, “But I say to you,” he is declaring himself an authority as strong as the Old Testament. And he doesn’t contradict the law, but rather deepens it.

Sometimes this is referred to as getting to the sin behind the sin: in this case, anger is behind murder. Jesus isn’t referring to accidental death, like if a motorist strikes a pedestrian they never saw. No, this death is desired, acted out, intentional, and it started in the murderer’s heart.

Not all anger is wrong; we see God get angry over injustice, for example. But much of the anger we experience comes not from righteousness, but from selfishness. Someone snubs us socially; we keep underperforming in class while our annoying classmate scores well; our roommate gets asked out on dates all the time, and we never do. The sources of anger in our life are endless, potentially. Sometimes we feel anger when something is legitimately frustrating, but we escalate it by declaring another person judged, inferior, an idiot—we escalate it when we feel hatred and disgust. We declare in our hearts, and maybe over whispers in gossip.

Jesus died to create peace, between us and God, and among each other. Notice that even anger directed toward us is enough for us to “leave our gift” and seek reconciliation. Anger and bitterness among us is such a disruption that Jesus even commands us to put off religious devotional acts until we’ve tried to reconcile!

Are there any relationships right now that need reconciliation? Perhaps you have felt anger for a long time, or known that someone in your life has a grudge against you. What is keeping you from moving forward? Take some time now to pray through each of these relationships, asking God for understanding and help in moving forward—and for courage to pursue peace, in the power of the Spirit.

Day Five: Matthew 5:17-20

“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.” Matthew 5:17

Here in these verses, Jesus clarifies what could be a misconception of his ministry. He wanted his original listeners, and us, to know that he cares deeply about all of what God said and commanded in the Old Testament: he affirms that those words will continue until the end of history, that each and every one should be taught and obeyed, and in fact that for a person to enter his kingdom, their goodness has to be beyond even the strictest observers.

At first that might sound like bad news; after all, if you’ve started to understand who God is, you’ve started to understand how much you’re not like him, how much you don’t always follow the rules.

To understand it better, let’s take a step back to consider a few things. First, people were thinking Jesus maybe didn’t care about God’s words, since he was associating with people who were notorious for ignoring them. That’s good news for us—Jesus doesn’t expect you to be perfect before he’ll come be with you.

Second, the Bible promises that if we come to Jesus, he will give us to power to live differently. The religious leaders were following the rules, but they were only obedient on the outside, as this sermon will continue to spell out. When a person starts a relationship with Jesus, he promises to give her the Holy Spirit (see John 3:37-39, or Ephesians 1:13), who will change her on the inside and outwardly.

Third, we can remember why Jesus feels this way about God’s words: it’s because he knows God perfectly, and loves him. Psalm 119 is one long poem about how beautiful God’s rules are, because they reflect the beauty of a God who is good, who loves justice and mercy. Jesus honors God’s words, all of them, because they all reflect and honor his person. As we grow closer to God, this is our motivation too: we don’t fear punishment, because we know Jesus took all of what we deserve on the cross. But we long to honor him, because we see his ways as so good and right.

This gives us so much confidence to pray. If you haven’t yet put yourself under the Lordship of Jesus, consider doing so; he has made a way for you to not only be free from punishment, but to receive power to live differently, and to have your eyes opened to see him for who he really is. If you have submitted to Jesus, pray that he would increase your vision for how his rules reflect his goodness, and ask that he would continue to change you from the inside out.

Sometimes there are patterns in our life that have been stubbornly stuck for a long time. Jesus has power for you there too, and he loves to use other people to help us. Consider inviting older, mature Christians to help you figure out how to apply the power of God to these sticky areas. No one is meant to grow alone!

Day Four: Matthew 5:13-16

“that they might see your good works and glorify your Father who is in the heavens.” Matthew 5:16

In these next verses, Jesus starts to illustrate his message using metaphors. First he declares that his disciples are the salt of the earth, and then the light of the world. While scholars debate the exact significance of what salt means here, we can see that the images are meant to go together by their similar sentence structure. They work together to build to a common theme: Christians are supposed to be noticeable, visible, people who stand out as strongly as salt in a dish or light in darkness.

Notice, though, that Jesus doesn’t want his followers to be visible for their own sake, so that they would get applause or awards or appreciation. Jesus wants his people’s goodness to be visible so that others could see and give glory to God, the Heavenly Father. He knows that our fullest lives are found when we see God for who he is, and when our hearts give him glory. It not only honors him when we do so, but our wounds begin to heal and we begin, even if ever so slowly, to change.

Jesus wants to work his power in you so that you are more able to say yes to what he loves, and no to what he hates, and he wants to do this so that you experience the life of relationship with him, not the death of running away from the one who loves you. But never miss that Jesus also wants so much more for you than your own betterment: he wants you to be a part of the healing of others, the restoration of others, the coming to life from death of those around you. He is always inviting us, commanding us, to be a part of all the good he is doing.

It is incredible and humbling that we are able to show others who God and is and what he is like. If we're honest, we feel the places where we contradict God's goodness, where we are more likely to communicate confusion than confidence. At the same time, the pull and promise of being a part grand plot for spreading goodness and joy is the only thing worth our lives. With Jesus, we can be called into something passionate and worthy, and because of Jesus, our failures and our victories can be leveraged to full, brilliant effect.

This is a call to examine yourself. What could it look like for you to be light on your campus? What could it look like for your connection to Jesus to produce something so visibly good that even those who don’t know him would move closer to God? These are big things to dream, worthy of your prayers and attention. Get together with others in your fellowship and pray and dream together!

Day Three: Matthew 5:11-12

“Rejoice and be overjoyed, because your reward is great in the heavens, for thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:12

You may notice that there’s an intensification in these two verses compared to the previous blessings. Those were general; these verses turn specific, introducing “you” language. And even more, they speak of some nasty consequences for aligning yourself with Jesus, including verbal and possibly physical abuse. One might expect Jesus to counsel in the face of this something like, “Just hold on through it, it won’t last forever,” or “don’t get too discouraged.” But instead he uses two terms of celebration: you should be really pumped that these terrible things are going on!

What is going on here? This is certainly different than an everyday scenario. When you’re feeling the weight of way too much work to do, you don’t count yourself lucky. When your roommate or someone in your class or in a club with you is holding a grudge against you for seemingly no reason, or gives you a hard time because they just don’t seem to like you, you don’t tend to call your mom exhilarated that you got to experience social oppression.

It’s the identification with Jesus that makes the difference. God isn’t ever going to applaud us just for being disliked. But he recognizes that those who have aligned themselves with him have always experienced some form of persecution, from subtle to extreme. It takes a trust in God’s goodness, in his care for you, to stand with him when it gets hard to do so, when God’s position is unsexy or looks ridiculous.

Are there ways in your life right now where standing on God’s side as opposed to your peers is causing you to be ridiculed or treated badly? Or perhaps, do you notice an unwillingness in your heart to move closer to Jesus because you don’t want to be on the receiving end of this treatment?

As we will continue to see in this Sermon, Jesus wants us to recognize that there’s no viable way to be for him but also not really for him. That reality is present here too, but even more Jesus wants us to be reassured that it will be worth it to stand with him, so worth it we will even be in a position to rejoice. He promises great reward, a reward that outweighs any suffering—a reward that is both waiting for us, but is also in the right now.

He doesn’t specify that reward for us here in this text: again we see, we are called to trust him. Is he a person of his word? Does his character demonstrate that he will follow through? Does what we see of him show that he has the power to deliver something so great? Spend some time meditating on Scriptures you know that point out his character and power; if you’re not sure where to go, ask another Christian friend for help!

Day Two: Matthew 5:3-10

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.”           Matthew 5:3

The sermon opens with a section called the Beatitudes—from a word that means blessing—and they are eight declarations of what true blessing is. These are some of the most famous and precious words of Jesus. The overall tone of the statements is spiritual, and though each one can be read separately, they all also interpret and support each other. There is a mix of both character (those who are merciful) and circumstance (those who are persecuted). The explanations of the blessedness come in both this-worldly (they shall be comforted) and otherworldly terms (they shall see God). They are simple yet all encompassing and multi-faceted.

They are also somewhat surprising. Campus culture isn’t quick to say “Blessed are those who steer clear of the hook-up scene,” or “Blessed are those who champion other classmates above themselves.” Even if some of these qualities can be admired from afar occasionally, we usually don’t trust that they will work for us. We need to get ahead, socially and professionally. We need to look out for ourselves, strive for ourselves.

That’s because the campus end goal, and the end goal of the world, is a worldly happiness and success. The American dream is to work hard, make your money, and secure your comfort, push off your pain. It creates a society that ironically tags a post #blessed, but doesn’t actually think that the purpose is to gratefully, humbly receive, let alone run after heavenly things.

Read over the blessings once again. Jesus doesn’t try to convince you that these things are what you should want; he presents them simply as desirable, as real treasure, despite how the current state of the person might otherwise look. This is a recurring theme with Jesus: things aren’t always what they seem, and he asks you to trust him over what you may first be inclined to think.

Perhaps you’ve not yet made up your mind about whether or not Jesus deserves your trust. I would commend to you reflecting on these blessings, and pondering the character of a person who would champion them.

But perhaps you have decided that Jesus is worthy of trust, and conflicted though your heart can be, you want to follow him.  The heart behind the Beatitudes is one of humility, and of looking to God for all that we need. You can come to him confessing, mourning any ways that your heart or actions have run contrary to his priorities, and he will always forgive, always comfort. You can ask him to change your heart to purity, to put in you a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and you shall be satisfied. Pray over these declarations, and let Jesus’s words recalibrate your view of blessing.

Day One: Matthew 5:1-2

“And seeing the crowds, he went up onto the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. And opening his mouth he taught them.”

Up to this point in Matthew’s gospel, readers have encountered a lot of information about Jesus, but haven't really heard from him. They have encountered his ancient lineage, his miraculous conception, the opposition to his emergence into the world, and his blessing and empowering for ministry, all preparing for his teaching. If you haven’t read Matthew 1-4, now would be a great time!

Many were interested in him—we see that Jesus saw the crowds. It was this seeing that spurred Jesus up on the mountain to take the seated position of a teacher. Matthew mentions that it was the disciples who came to him, and this suggests that the teaching was directed to those who came up the mountain with him, not the totality of the crowds he had seen.

Today, as always, opinions on Jesus are diverse, though most people feel positively toward what they know about Jesus, even if not toward his followers. On campus you’ve perhaps heard people express that Jesus was a good moral teacher, or an inspiring radical. But rarely do these people draw near to take a closer look, to investigate Jesus for themselves at a deeper, more personal level.

Perhaps this describes you. But no matter where you’re coming from, you can follow Jesus up to sit and hear his teaching. There’s no prerequisite for learning from him, no need to clean yourself up before you come. Pray that you would come with an open mind, and a heart ready to receive challenge and comfort. Prayer is talking with God—if you’re not sure how to do this, ask a friend who follows Jesus for help! Even if you’re acquainted with prayer, consider approaching this sermon in community—as we see, he was speaking to a collection of people, not an individual. God bless you on your journey through this marvelous teaching.

The Sermon on the Mount

Jesus's sermon reported in Matthew 5-7 is one of the most beloved and challenging texts in the Bible. I had the privilege, in the Spring of 2016, to create a 28 day devotional based on that sermon, in concert with close reading of the Greek. What follows in this series is a lightly edited version of the work for my Matthew course under Dr. Mark Jennings.

The devotional is targeted towards urban undergraduates, both those who follow Jesus and those who are exploring Christianity. But my hope is that it will bless you as well, no matter where you are, "for the word of God is alive and active."