I maintain friendships with folks who don’t follow my faith. We frequently get into discussions of religious belief. It is very common for them to say they like Jesus, but they cannot abide what they describe as the “angry god” of the Old Testament. In fact, they use their distaste for the acts of Yahweh to utterly reject the Bible.
These same friends usually cite the Sermon on the Mount as the pinnacle of Jesus’ teachings. I thought it would be useful to look at this sermon to see what Jesus says about God in it. The Sermon on the Mount is found in the Gospel of Matthew in chapters 5, 6 and 7.
The context of this sermon must not be missed. When Jesus mentions the “Father”, he is referring to the God of the Old Testament.
Be children of God
A consistent theme in the sermon is to become children of God. For example, Jesus ties the pursuit of good qualities to a reward of relationship:
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
Perhaps a stronger statement is made a little later. When Jesus discusses loving one’s enemies, he makes a remarkable statement:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
Jesus says that the reason we love our enemies is not to “be a good person”, but rather to “be sons of your Father who is in heaven”. In fact, we are told to love our enemies specifically so that we will be like God. Here, Jesus is revealing part of the nature of God: that he loves those who don’t love him back. Jesus points out that this same God expresses goodness toward a world that reviles him, by giving each person days to live and sustenance (“rain”).
Serve for God
Service to others is a high calling. We all recognize we live in a world filled with needs, and serving others is commanded in the Scriptures. Yet, what is the core reason to perform these “good works”? Jesus answers it:
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
Jesus clearly says our motivation ought to be to motivate others to glorify God the Father. Jesus makes a similar statement a little later:
“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.” (Matthew 6:3)
Above, we saw Jesus allude to the nature of God–that he is good and sends kindness even to those who revile him. Jesus also says that he is an attentive God. Unlike the god of the Deist, who set the world in motion and then walked away from it, leaving it in the (incompetent) hands of humanity, God is quite near, and quite attentive. For example, when giving us the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus points out that God knows the details of our lives:
“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.” (Matthew 6:7-8)
Not everyone has had the experience of loving parents who care about us and the details of our lives. Yet, Jesus describes God as a good father:
“Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9)
Does the Old Testament God deserve honor? My friends I described at the beginning of this post would answer with a resounding “no!”. Yet, what does Jesus say? When Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer, he starts it with:
“Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.'” (Matthew 6:9-10)
Jesus says here with a resounding “yes!” that God deserves honor. He goes even further and says that we should specifically seek God’s kingdom to be manifest in our world and that we should pray for his will to be done.
The Sum of the Matter
Reading through the Sermon on the Mount, it is evident that Jesus doesn’t only give us suggestions for a good life and good relationships with other people. He commands us repeatedly to structure our lives so as to honor, trust and serve for the purposes of God the Father–the God of the Old Testament. Near the end of the sermon, Jesus gives a sobering warning to those who think they follow Jesus but fail to honor God the Father:
“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, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)