When Jesus had finished this sermon, the crowds were astonished at His teaching, because He was teaching them like one who had authority, and not like their scribes. When He came down from the mountain, large crowds followed Him. (Matthew 7:28-29—8:1)
The Crowd Conundrum (or, The Popularity Problem)
Jesus’ ministry had an interesting problem: he was popular. The “large crowds” of the HCSB, translated “great multitudes” in the KJV, likely indicates thousands of people, as would later be present at the feeding of the five thousand.
It was in response to such “multitudes” that Jesus climbed the mountain to deliver the Sermon on the Mount in the first place (Matthew 5:1). And in fact, this explains why the sermon ends the way it does, on a note that feels suddenly negative – with a series of warnings about fake followers, false prophets, and broad gates that lead to destruction.
Facing multitudes of people who had come to hear him and see what he would do, Jesus faced a conundrum. If he wanted to do the expected thing and establish a this-world kingdom in rebellion to Rome, he could have leveraged his popularity to do it. Plenty of people would have followed. Plenty of people were following.
Instead, he was looking to bring the kingdom of heaven into the world, one heart and life at a time. He needed a different kind of follower.
Pearls Before Swine, Narrow Roads, and Choosing Your Foundation
Beginning in Matthew 7:6, Jesus began to draw lines between those who were truly following him and those who were just along for the ride, or worse, who were just trying to use Jesus to benefit their own agendas.
He contrasted “dogs and swine” with those who ask, seek, and knock, treating the holy and valuable as holy and valuable. He contrasted his hidden, narrow way with the broad and obvious path, where the crowds sweep one another along. And he contrasted false prophets, those who say “Lord, Lord” but have no real connection to the kingdom, with those who truly belong to the flock of Christ.
What’s interesting is that just following didn’t differentiate these groups. They were all following Jesus, literally … going where he went, listening to his teaching, and honoring him as rabbi and as their possible king.
But Jesus wasn’t just looking for this kind of follower: those who were in proximity. He was looking for followers who would go all-in, joining him in purpose.
Jesus always accepted that within the kingdom era he was ushering in, multitudes would “follow” without ever entering the kingdom.
Since they would all be in proximity to Jesus, it would sometimes be hard to tell the difference. But to him, there IS a difference—a profound one.
The Difference between Following and Following
From our vantage point in history, we tend to associate following Jesus purely with placing our faith in his death and resurrection and thus becoming regenerate (“born again,” or as Paul would put it, made a “new creation”).
Yet Jesus draws a straight line between following him and “doing his will”: that is, keeping and obeying his commands. This, he says, is how one builds a life that lasts:
“Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock.
But everyone who hears these words of Mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. And its collapse was great!” (Matthew 7:24-27)
Don’t miss this: as Jesus’ life progressed and his mission became clearer, it DID become evident that order #1 of doing the will of God is placing our trust in Jesus’ work as carried out in his death and resurrection and thus becoming regenerate through the grace and power of God.
But this doesn’t mean that as regenerate followers of Jesus, we have nothing more to do.
There is a grander plan, a grander purpose for our lives.
Jesus said those who enter the kingdom will be those who do the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21), and the will of Father is the redemption and transformation of the world, starting with the human race. The teachings of Jesus, taken seriously and implemented in our lives, are an integral part of that transformation.
The Sermon on the Mount and the Redemption of Our Souls
The Old Testament prophet Micah gives a powerful vision of the kingdom era ushered in by Jesus. Note the role of teaching in the transformation of the nations:
In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s house
will be established
at the top of the mountains
and will be raised above the hills.
Peoples will stream to it,
and many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us about His ways
so we may walk in His paths.”
For instruction will go out of Zion
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will settle disputes among many peoples
and provide arbitration for strong nations
that are far away.
They will beat their swords into plows,
and their spears into pruning knives.
Nation will not take up the sword against nation,
and they will never again train for war.
But each man will sit under his grapevine
and under his fig tree
with no one to frighten him.
For the mouth of the Lord of Hosts
has promised this.
Micah envisions an era in which the nations of the world voluntarily stream to the “mountain of the Lord” to learn from him, to receive his instruction. This teaching of God will bring peace and prosperity to the entire world.
When he “climbed the mountain” to deliver the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus began to fulfill this prophecy. And in fact, the teachings of Jesus have already brought almost unimaginable change to the world.
As much as our world still has many problems, and as much as it sometimes seems like they are getting worse, a long view tells a different story. We live in an era of unprecedented freedom, wealth, health, peace, and human rights; and in all of these areas, the teachings and the people of Jesus Christ have long been at the forefront of the change.
(This is a HUGE topic, much too big for a blog post, and of course there is some controversy involved. A great place to start is The Book That Made Your World by Vishal Mangalwadi.)
We are likewise called to be part of the change – part of the kingdom expansion. We are called to do the will of God; in other words, to join him in his purposes. We don’t do this in order to EARN redemption, but because it is a PART of redemption – ours and that of the people and societies around us.
Part of redeeming, transforming, and restoring creation is teaching us how to live in the way we were originally intended to live. That’s what the teachings of Jesus are all about.
Following Jesus All Over Again
As someone who came to Jesus in the classic way of praying a prayer (at the age of 4) and who learned to “follow” him through the triple method of going to church, reading my Bible, and praying, I find the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon challenging – and revitalizing.
More and more, it’s becoming evident that we don’t just need a belief system, we need a way of life. Thankfully, that’s exactly what Jesus gave us. Yes, it’s a way of life that has relationship, covenant, and “redemption by the blood” at its core. But it’s still a way: a path, a lifestyle.
Isaiah 58:12 in the King James Version says of God’s faithful people, “and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.” I love that last phrase: paths to dwell in. Jesus has given us this: a path in which to live, a way of life that can become a home for us and for those who come after us.
I’m challenged by this to renew my faith and my commitment to following Jesus: to stepping out of the crowd, differentiating myself from those who are merely “near” Jesus, and becoming someone who is truly “with” him—participating in his plans for the world through my own commitment to living out a Sermon on the Mount lifestyle of trust, forgiveness, purity, honor, and seeking.
Where I have fallen away from the path and been content to camp out near the road, watching Jesus go by but not really going with him, I look forward in this new year to getting back on the path again. The journey is exciting. The company is unbeatable. And the destination is the restoration of all things.
I can’t think of a better way to build my life, or a better path to dwell in.
I would love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment below!
This is Part 98 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.