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. (Matthew 7:28-29)
As we reach the end of the Sermon the Mount, we find the crowds responding to Jesus with astonishment. They recognized something in him that I believe we still grapple with today: the unusual merger of authority with teaching.
The Greek word translated “authority,” exousia, denotes the right to exercise power. It is a word usually used of those in government: kings; their delegated agents such as governors, generals, and tax collectors; and the spiritual “rulers, authorities, and powers” we read of in Ephesians 6:12 and elsewhere.
The Jewish scribes—those who meticulously read, copied, and studied the Scriptures—taught the people regularly, but they did not have authority in this sense. In Jesus, the people recognized they were not only hearing someone with the ability to accurately and intelligently transmit law, but someone with the power and authority to make and enforce it.
In other words, they recognized a king.
As a teacher, a Jewish rabbi, I think that Jesus likely overturned the expectations of some. Recall that the Jews of Jesus’ day were on the lookout for the prophesied Messiah identified in Isaiah and elsewhere as the king who would sit on the throne of David.
He would overthrow the oppressive forces of the world (embodied at the time by the Roman Empire) and renew God’s covenant with Israel.
Jesus is explicitly identified as this king from the beginning. He is called “the Son of David” in Matthew 1:1. In Matthew 2 he is recognized as the shepherd of Israel, again a reference to kingly prophecy in the Old Testament. John the Baptist, of course, heralds Jesus’ arrival with the words, “The kingdom of heaven has come near!”
And Jesus himself declares both his kingship and his kingdom in the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount:
The poor in spirit are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. (Matthew 5:3)
But here is where the story takes an unusual twist, for kings are not often also teachers. David certainly was not. David was a conqueror, a deliverer, and an ardent worshipper, but his “shepherding” of his people did not entail teaching them. David didn’t make disciples.
Solomon, with his famed wisdom and collections of proverbs, is closer in this respect to being a picture of Jesus. In fact, David and Solomon together are a “type of Christ,” a picture in the Old Testament of the king who was to come.
The Spirit of God empowered David for military victory over Israel’s enemies; the same Spirit of God empowered Solomon for wisdom and peace.
And so we have Jesus, the teacher with authority—the king and deliverer who is also a prince of peace, and who teaches … who brings wisdom and makes disciples.
Jesus is not one or the other. He is both.
The Answer Is Yes: Confronting False Dichotomies
I imagine that many of Jesus’ early followers—not to mention the crowds and religious leaders who gathered around him—struggled with this both/and nature of Jesus’ ministry.
If you were looking for a military commander to deliver your people from Rome, would you really expect to find that commander wandering around the countryside delivering sermons on the real meaning of God’s law?
And if you were looking for a spiritual teacher to disciple you in the ways of God, would you really be looking for a rebellion-inciting king?
Of course, I may be overly westernizing (or overly modernizing) the issue. It’s very possible that people in Jesus’ time didn’t see the dichotomy I do—that it was perfectly natural to them to expect their king to be a rabbi and vice versa.
But then again, they were astonished by something. And we’re often told that what astonished and even dismayed them was Jesus’ evident exousia. “Who gave you this authority?” the Pharisees often demanded.
In any case, whatever dichotomies confused the people of the first century, we have plenty of our own confusing us.
- Is Jesus Lord or is he Savior?
- Are we saved by faith or are we saved by works?
- Is Jesus a teacher or is he God?
- Does God speak through his Spirit or through his Word?
- Is the Christian life about love or is it about holiness?
- Are we children of God or are we servants of God?
To pretty much all of these, the answer is …
The Pendulum Swing: How We Build False Dichotomies
In many areas of our lives and beliefs, we have set things in opposition to each other that do not need to be opposed and in many cases should not be opposed.
The reasons for this are usually historical.
For example, the Bible does not place faith and works in opposition to one another. It sees works as born out of and indicative of true faith. While works do not save us or justify us before God (Ephesians 2:8-9), faith without works is just a sham … it may pretend to be a living thing, but in reality it’s dead (James 2:6).
Honestly, this should be self-evident. You may say you believe me if I tell you that the corner store is giving out million-dollar bills to anyone who walks in, but if you don’t actually walk to the corner store to get your money, you don’t really believe me at all.
Despite the Bible’s teaching and the common-sense relationship between faith and works, we still tend to think in terms of “faith vs works” (such that even writing this is uncomfortable for me). Why?
Well, mostly because of the historical circumstances in which a man named Martin Luther lived. Luther reacted to a religious system that was out of balance. His solutions were necessary correctives—but in some ways, they were also out of balance.
Luther—whom, to be clear, I admire—even inserted a word into Scripture. Where Romans 3:28 reads “a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law,” Luther’s translation says, “a man is justified by faith alone apart from the works of the law.”
While in this context his addition may be justifiable, it did help to create a faith vs works paradigm that quickly departed from its biblical grounding.
This is how most of our dichotomies form. The pendulum swings one direction and then another. The truth is usually closer to the center—but it’s natural for us, human beings who are moving with the momentum of history, to miss it.
And when we do, it may take some effort to get back to the center again.
Recovering the Grace of Discipleship
As history trembles and our thought-worlds divide along various fault lines, we may tend to lose important things down the cracks.
A modern example is the charismatic movement (of which I am a grateful part): as charismatics have emphasized the work of the Spirit, they have tended to create an opposition between the Spirit and the written Word, the Bible. This gap is (thankfully) beginning to close, yet it remains a significant problem for many charismatic groups.
In my opinion, one of the most important things we’ve lost down the cracks of history—or bypassed in the pendulum swing—is discipleship.
From the start of the Sermon on the Mount, it is crystal clear that Jesus does not just call people to “accept him,” “invite him into their hearts,” “be born again,” “surrender all,” “pray the Sinner’s Prayer,” or whatever wording you want to use.
Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher—and that meant he called (and calls) students. More specifically, he called disciples, and the purpose of discipleship is to learn a way of life.
If we accept the kingship of Jesus—his authority and power to save us and rule over our world—we also need to accept the teachings of Jesus. We need to do them, even if they take us a long time to learn and we never really walk them out perfectly.
We need to become people who build our lives on the rock and thus withstand the storms that batter us. We need to become people who take Jesus seriously as a teacher—not (again) because we think we can somehow perfectly “do” the Sermon and that will get us into heaven, but because the way of life laid out in the Sermon on the Mount is part and parcel of the gift of the kingdom.
It is part of what saves us, transforms us, and ushers us into new life, here and now.
Christianity is not just a set of beliefs to believe, principles to accept, or steps to take. It is not even “just” a relationship with God, whatever exactly that may mean. Christianity as Jesus gave it to us is a life to be lived.
As his disciples, we should be marked out not so much by our church affiliations or even our “works of power,” but by our forgiveness, our love, our trust, and our self-giving lives.
We have the privilege of being not only children of God and subjects of the King of Kings, but his disciples as well—learning to think, feel, and live like he does. All of this is empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The call to discipleship is not a requirement for salvation. It is a part of salvation—a gift with the ability to transform our lives.
As much as we stand for the great doctrines of grace, faith, and salvation, let us not lose this unexpected and incredible gift. It too is a grace, given to us not by our own works but by the loving will and unmerited favor of God.
This is Part 97 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)
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