“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Over the years, I’ve read many commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount. Some have suggested that Matthew, by placing Jesus’ teaching on a mountain, is depicting Jesus as the new Moses, bringing God’s new Law to the people. This can certainly be supported by Jesus’ references to various aspects of the Law through the sermon. But what if more is actually taking place here?
I was thinking through the above passage this morning. It was part of the Revised Common Lectionary for this week, so our faith-community used it for our corporate Lectio Divina during our Sunday night worship. Since then, it’s been haunting my thoughts.
N.T. Wright states the “house” being built that Jesus is referring to is the temple. He is climaxing his Sermon on the Mount with a powerful prophetic warning about the temple.
For Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, the temple was the primary symbol of their identity and existence. It was the place where God dwelt, where heaven and earth met. Yet, they had taken this beautiful gift of God’s presence and grace and were “building the temple” upon sand. In other words, they were creating a false story or meaning around this symbol that would eventually lead to their destruction. They had distorted the temple into a symbol of ethnic distinction and superiority over the pagan nations. And the temple reminded them that one day, similar to the Maccabean revolt, God would deliver the Jews from their Gentile overlords and vindicate them by driving the pagans out of their country and ultimately placing Israel over the nations.
But it is this false story that is bringing judgment, and not deliverance, upon Israel. Jesus pulls in the imagery of Noah and the flood to make his point. He is prophesying God’s judgment upon the temple as a result of Israel’s failure to truly be God’s reconciling and redeeming people who bless the nations. Therefore, a flood is coming in the form of the Roman sword. And when the Jews take up arms and rush to the temple (and the distorted story and meaning they have constructed), rather than finding divine protection and safety as Noah found in the ark, they will find their own destruction. And that is exactly what happened in 70 A.D.
So Jesus is calling them to build a new temple, a temple redefined by his own teaching. I believe this may be Matthew’s intention of portraying Jesus teaching his disciples on a mountain. Where was the temple and Jerusalem built? On a mountain. Where is Matthew 5 to 7 taking place? On a mountain. In other words, I think the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 to 7 is a picture of the new temple – a community of Jesus’ apprentices gathered around Jesus, listening to and practicing his words and thereby becoming everything the temple stands for, heaven’s life lived on earth. His teaching is not a new law or ethic, but a new vision of becoming people who embody the reality of the temple – God’s presence as the tangible intersection of heaven and earth.
That’s why Jesus calls them the “light of the world” and the “city on a hill” (Matt 5:14). He’s referring to Jerusalem and, by association, the temple. Jesus’ apprentices are to embody Jerusalem and the temple. And so that none of them misunderstand what he’s talking about, he affirms that he’s not abolishing God’s Story among the Jewish nation (i.e. the Law and Prophets) but actually fulfilling it (Matthew 5:17). That’s because, as Jesus models in his own life, people who embody the “heaven-on-earth” reality of the temple naturally fulfill the Law. And this kind of embodiment of “heaven-on-earth” far surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5:20), which is simply the outward avoidance of certain activities.
The people who listen to and practice Jesus’ words and who are thus becoming the embodiment of God’s temple have entered into a new human life. Jesus unpacks this kind of life – we aren’t predisposed to anger, slander, contempt, lust, lying or any other sins that can hide in the shadows of the human heart and remain untouched by external regulations. Rather, “temple-embodying” people are naturally and easily forgiving, reconciling, trusting, healing, loving and transforming from the inside-out.
Jesus then moves into the kind of prayer life “temple-embodying” people have. It’s a life of prayer that seeks God’s name to be hallowed on earth as it is in heaven; that seeks God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven; that seeks God’s will to be accomplished on earth as it is in heaven. “On earth as it is in heaven” is what the temple is all about! Jesus’ apprentices will live and pray and breathe “heaven-on-earth.” Like the temple, they will become a place of worship, a place of faith, a place of forgiveness, a place of righteousness, a place where heaven and earth truly meet.
As Jesus progresses further into the inward life of “temple-embodying” people in the remainder of his sermon, the climax of his sermon in Matthew 7:21-29 just makes sense. Israel has failed to be this kind of people, God’s people. So God is judging them for their failures. The temple, the center of their faith and identity as God’s people, will be destroyed. In the form of the Roman army, the rains are coming, the streams are rising and the winds will beat upon the temple… and the symbolic heart of Israel will fall. But those who hear Jesus, do what he says, and embody the “heaven-on-earth” reality of the temple will stand in the midst of the raging storm.
And the same is true today as it was in Jesus’ day. What has become our distorted symbols of distinction and superiority over each other or the world? Regular church attendance or “community life”? Adherence to one ethical code of conduct over another? Spiritual gifts or spiritual fruit? Political conservatives or political liberals? Postmodernity or modernity? Emerging or established? Institutional or organic? Sermons or art or witnessing or leadership or mission or worship? Whether it is ethically, spiritually, ecclesiologically, or politically, there are many things that can become to us what the distorted symbol of the temple had become for Jesus’ contemporaries.
Therefore, Jesus’ words still ring with fresh prophetic impact. Abandon the false stories. Gather around him. Listen to his words. Practice his words. Become his people, his followers, his apprentices. Embody his life. That is our salvation.