A Matter of Life and Death

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At this Commissioning Service it is a happy coincidence that we have come to the end of our series of studies in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. That is because the passage we are to study I’ve entitled A Matter of Life and Death and is relevant for everyone, inside and outside the Church. For also this Commissioning Service takes place at a time when a number of people are having new beginnings – in education, in their careers, or in new locations as people move around the country and many up to Tyneside. At such a time it is no bad thing to have a spiritual “track and trace.”

And Jesus’ teaching in our passage for this evening provides material for such a spiritual health check. So let us now pray:

Heavenly Father, we pray that your Holy Spirit will guide us as we consider this remarkable conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount.
Many we not only understand it but trust and obey its teaching and its teacher.
For Jesus sake. Amen.

With that introduction I now have three headings: First, The Two Builders; secondly, Being Like The Wise Builder; and, thirdly, Being Like The Foolish Builder. So, first, The Two Builders:

Look at Matthew 7.24 and Matthew 7.26:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock…And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.

So the radical difference between the two builders was simple. The first builder not only heard Jesus’ words, but he put them into practice, (“he does them” Matthew 7.24). The second builder also heard Jesus’ words, but he did not put them into practice (“he does not do them” Matthew 7.26). But what are Jesus’ words? Answer – the whole Sermon on the Mount – so a very brief recap:

Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with his famous “Statement of Blessings” - those statements regarding what really is the good life for us human beings. Then comes Jesus’ teaching that his disciples needed to be salt and light in the wider world; and that keeping God’s law is not just keeping its letter but also its spirit, and so requiring a change of heart such that you could love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. Then there is Jesus’ warning about public worship and prayer being all for show. And Jesus says we should pray the Lord’s prayer – and in the context mean it!

Then there is Jesus’ warning against amassing money for yourself and not for God; and that wonderful teaching that God is truly in control of your life whatever happens. So try in his strength not to worry unnecessarily but “seek first the kingdom of God.” And that brings us to Matthew 7, with its teaching on wrong judgment, more teaching on prayer (including our JPC verses for the year, Matthew 7.12) and the Golden Rule:

what you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets

But then there are three warnings from Jesus about: (one), a narrow way leading to life and a wide way leading to destruction; (two), false prophets; and, (three), false professors – those that claim to be fine believers but aren’t. But Jesus’ judgment is, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7.23). All that is the context for Matthew 7.24-27:

“Everyone then [or therefore] who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock ”…everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

Why is the first builder wise and the second foolish? It’s obvious. Their respective wisdom and folly was evidenced when “the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on or against those two houses.” When the going is good Jesus’ way is positively the best for human survival and human flourishing – personally, communally and nationally. But also (and especially) it is so in adversity and will be on the final judgment day as we shall see. So the first builder, like everyone who practically today obeys Christ and his teaching, was wise. I’ve no time for evidence now but I’ve documented the wisdom of following Christ in this world in many Coloured Supplements and in the annual Jesmond Conference talks – all are available on church.org.uk

But some may say “I thought the Church taught that God just wants people to ‘believe’ and all will be well. God just requires faith not works. Wasn’t that what the Reformation was all about – ‘justification by faith’?” Well, yes and no. To explain, we need now our second heading, Being Like The Wise Builder:

For faith is needed but only true faith and true faith always leads to obedience. That is so important. Paul’s first reference to faith in the Epistle to the Romans, his great work on justification by faith, is in Romans 1.5 where he describes his commission from Jesus in these words:

[it is]…to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.

The obedience of faith is both obedient love and holiness in our own lives that result from faith and also obedient submission to God’s will for love and holiness. And Paul’s last reference to faith in Romans is in Romans 16.26 where he speaks of the command of God to bring about the obedience of faith.

Also, at this Commissioning Service, it is good to remember that Jesus taught obedience not just at the start in the Sermon on the Mount but at the very end of his ministry. That was in his great Commission to his first disciples (Matthew 28.18-20):

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, [one] baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, [two] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

So that implies new disciples are trusting in Jesus Christ, having repented of their sin, and having received forgiveness and with the Holy Spirit now working in their lives. All that is what baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit symbolizes. However, then, in a new relationship with God that new disciple (in the Holy Spirit’s strength) seeks to build a new life on rock and not sand, by observing all Jesus commanded those first disciples. Of course, this side of heaven there will not be perfection. But as John Newton, the converted slave-trader and writer of the hymn, Amazing Grace, could say:

I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world, but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the Grace of God I am what I am.

He had true and saving faith that was proved by his works, - by his life. Many watching this service may not have a testimony exactly like John Newton’s, but you can echo in some measure what he said. Yes, we still sin, but as we remind ourselves regularly in church:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness [1 John 1.8-9].

But someone may still say, what is it “truly to trust in Jesus with evidence in obedience and good works?” Well, I find helpful those theologians who see three aspects to faith. First, true saving faith requires knowledge of certain claims about God – for example, that Jesus was God come as a real human being, who then said, among many other things, we are to obey God’s commandments and love one another. Secondly, it requires belief that what is claimed is true - that Jesus lived, died for our sins, really rose again, ascended to heaven and will come again one day, to judge the world at the end of history. But even that is not enough to prove it is truly saving faith.
Demons, the Bible says, can believe that – that it is true (James 2.19). So, thirdly, and fundamentally there needs to be trust and commitment – the faith that trusts and obeys Christ.

For an analogy - now or probably after Covid, you may have to go to London for the day by train with an advance ticket. With regard to coming home, first, you know (because you have a ticket for the Kings Cross 6.00 o’clock train), there is an evening train back to Newcastle. Then, secondly, when later at the station - you agree and know that the actual train at platform 1 at 6.00 o’clock is truly going to Newcastle. However, thirdly, all that is of no use until you obey the instruction to go to platform 1 and take your seat.

So getting back is a matter of trust and obedience. Something like that happens with true faith in Christ. Certainly, as you trust and obey Christ, such true faith not only justifies you with God, but it will also grow and you will become ever more convinced of Jesus first words in that Great Commission:

“all authority in heaven and earth now has been given to me”

and of his last words:

“I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

And you realise how wise it is to “hear Christ words and do them.” Of course, it is not to win favour with God. No! We can never do that. That’s why Christ had to die bearing our guilt for us. But the purpose of his dying was that, forgiven and right with God, and with new life, we can start to obey. So Peter said (I Peter 2.24):

“He [Christ] himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”

And Paul said most emphatically in Ephesians 2.8-10:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

That brings us finally and thirdly, to Being Like The Foolish Builder:

Everyone (with no exception), says Jesus, who hears but does not follow and obey his teaching is like a foolish builder. It is like building your life on sand not rock. So when the storm comes, your house and you will collapse like the house in the Parable, and says Jesus, “great was the fall of it”. Those were the very last words of the Sermon on the Mount. Referring to this ending of the Sermon on the Mount, Professor F F Bruce, a great biblical scholar says:

There is a note of urgency, even sternness, about these verses which is overlooked by those who make facile remarks about the Sermon on the Mount as an ethical ideal.

That’s why Bruce calls this teaching “A Matter of Life or Death”. For not to follow Christ is disastrous for this life, and more so for eternity. In the Old Testament the storm can be a symbol of God’s judgment (look at Ezekiel 13.10 and following). So Jesus is implying that disobedience leads to hell! Yes, Jesus believed in, and taught about, hell a great deal and God’s negative judgments.

In Matthew 7 Jesus has been saying there is destruction for the those that travel the “broad way”; false prophet is likened to a diseased tree that is “cut down and thrown into the fire”; and false professors are disowned by Christ. And his final words about the building on the sand crashing down were great was the fall of it.

Time has gone. I must conclude. May I do so with some words and another great biblical scholar, Don Carson, and referring to those earlier verses:

These are now capped by likening a man who hears Jesus’ words and who does not practice them, to a house shattered, pulverized and swept away by a vicious storm. The question will not be restrained: ‘Is Jesus trying to frighten people into the kingdom?’

In one sense, of course, the answer must be yes. Some people may well be drawn to Christ because of the attraction of forgiveness; others may feel the first stirrings of desire to follow him when they first glimpse the immensity of his love or the integrity of his life, or when they experience the shame engendered by his scrutiny. But not a few will come only because they see that the issues with which Jesus is concerned are eternal issues – ultimately, nothing less than heaven and hell. … There is a heaven to be gained and a hell to be shunned.

If you are sleeping soundly in a house desperately threatened by rising flood waters, you may thank me for pounding on your door to rouse you. At the very least, you are not likely to accuse me of frightening you into safety. Frighten you I shall, effect your removal to a safe place I may attempt: but you would not accuse me of frightening you into safety …

Similarly, Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount by honestly attempting to frighten men and women into the kingdom of heaven, into salvation.

So writes Don Carson. Let us pray a moment of silent prayer responding as is appropriate in our own very different situations:

Merciful Father, we pray that you will accept and answer our prayers for your glory and our good, for the sake you Son, our Saviour. Jesus Christ. Amen

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