Sermon on the Mount: The Sermon’s Most Important Word
The most important word for understanding the Sermon on the Mount is, believe it or not, “heaven.” I found this out by accident when I did a study on every time the Greek word (ouranos) is used in the New Testament.
In the most basic sense, heaven is, first of all, where the birds fly (Mt. 6:26). Second, heaven is where the stars are (Heb. 11:12). Third, heaven is where God is (Mt. 6:9). This is probably exactly what Paul means when he talks about the “third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2-4). Not the place where the birds fly, and not the place where the stars are, but the place where God is. Although folks in the ancient world understood things like outer space far differently than we do, it still seems like they understood that these were three different places. A bird can’t fly to where the stars are.
More importantly, the place where God is is not merely farther out than the place where the stars are. No, it is above the “highest heavens” (Eph. 4:10). It is a different kind of place. Seeing this heaven is not just a matter of seeing really far. You have to have the “heavens opened” (Acts 7:56).
More than a place, heaven is a layer of reality that has to be revealed.
In 1 Cor. 15:35-53, Paul pushes the limits of human language to try and express what this reality is like. He parallels the things “of heaven” to the things that are “spiritual,” so it would probably be accurate to say that “heaven” refers to the spiritual realm.
But the word “spiritual” tends to bring up all the wrong ideas for us. We usually take it to mean “immaterial,” but Paul is clearly trying to explain that it is not. In fact, it is something far more sturdy than anything we experience in this world. Our present body is natural and of the earth. It is characterized by weakness and dishonor. It is perishable and mortal. But the future body is spiritual and of heaven. It is imperishable and immortal.
We might still think it is something intangible, but saying that it is characterized by strength doesn’t fit this idea at all. The heavenly/spiritual body is a body that is not less tangible than our present one, but somehow more so (2 Cor. 5:4).
If words fail, maybe a picture will do. Jesus’ resurrected body is a preview of this spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:49).
Well, Jesus’ resurrected body was clearly a material body (Luke 24:37-43). And yet he was able to walk right through the locked door of the upper room (John 20:19). Here’s the thing: Jesus wasn’t able to walk through the door because his body was some etherial, ephemeral thing. No, he was able to walk through the door because, compared to his resurrected body, the door was the etherial, ephemeral thing.
This world is weak and passing away. Look out your window. Everything you see–the sky, the trees, the ground and whatever we put on it–is a wisp of smoke. It may look solid, but it is decaying and passing away (Isa. 51:6). It is a mere shadow (Heb. 8:4-5). Heaven, the “spiritual” realm, is the real thing. Let’s call “heaven” “the spiritual realm,” but realize that it is more solid and enduring than this one (Mt. 6:19-20).
This heaven is the place where God is and it is also the place where he rules.
As the Lord’s Prayer implies, his will is done there (Mt. 6:10). So it is called his “kingdom.” The phrases “the Kingdom of Heaven” and “the Kingdom of God” are probably always synonymous (Mt. 19:23-24). Perhaps Matthew uses “Kingdom of Heaven” (often just “heaven”) most often because he wants us to remember the nature of this realm. Heaven is the spiritual realm where God rules and everything is the way it should be.
When my kids ask me what heaven will be like, I tell them to look around them. It’s this, but not broken anymore.
The story of Scripture is the story of God working to make things right. In that story, heaven is the platform from which God intervenes in this broken world. Although heaven is not literally “up,” the metaphor of “heaven is up” is so intuitive that God himself uses it. His voice comes from heaven (Jn. 12:28), he sends bread from heaven (John 6:31), and sometimes sends fire from heaven (Lk. 17:29).
His ultimate intervention “from heaven” was sending Jesus himself. In fact, Jesus’ favorite designation for himself in the Gospel of John is “the one sent.” Where was he sent from? Heaven (Jn. 6:38). And in the work of Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven is, itself, breaking in. The Kingdom is a present reality. It has “come near” (Mt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7). That’s what all of Jesus’ miracles are.
These miracles are the Kingdom of God breaking in to make something right (Lk. 11:20). They are an indication of what that kingdom is like (things aren’t broken there), and they are evidence that the kingdom is near.
Yet the Kingdom is not fully here. The world is still broken. We pray that God’s will might be done on earth (Mt. 6:10) because it all too often isn’t. As the theologians say, the Kingdom is “now, but not yet.” It is a present reality awaiting a future fulfillment.
In chapter 13, when Matthew gives Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom, so many of the parables play off of this idea of a present reality awaiting future fulfillment. In the Kingdom, the good seed has been planted. It’s a present reality. But it’s going to be mixed with weeds until the end (Mt. 13:24-30). A lot of the parables have to do with seeds, and what is a seed but a present reality awaiting future fulfillment?
The final fulfillment comes when Jesus returns. At the end of the story, all things are made new, and the holy city, Jerusalem itself, the dwelling place of God, is what comes down from heaven (Rev. 21:1-2). Heaven is the place where God is, and the place where God is comes down to his people.
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them” (Rev. 21:3).
So, ultimately, Jesus isn’t taking us to heaven. He’s bringing heaven to us. It will be a “new heaven and new earth.” It will be different from the old one, not because it’s not material, but because it’s not broken (Rev. 21:4). When my kids ask me what heaven will be like, I tell them to look around them. It’s this, but not broken anymore.
This is the story of Scripture: a broken world that God is preparing to make new. Another way of saying this is that it is the story of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. This Kingdom is the focus of the Sermon on the Mount, from the first Beattitude (5:3) to Jesus’ final warnings (7:21), so we have to understand what it is:
The Kingdom of Heaven is the spiritual realm (which is actually more solid and enduring than this one) where God is, where God rules, and where everything is as it should be. In Christ, this Kingdom is a present reality awaiting future fulfillment.
Matthew tells us that we live in the part of the story in which the Kingdom has come near. The implications for how I live the next time I walk out the door are enormous. It upends every investment I make here, and indicates that true value lies in totally different things. To borrow Tony Campolo’s metaphor, what does it mean to start switching the price tags back from what I thought was valuable to what is truly valuable?
How do I relate to things? To time? To myself? To God? To other people in the vast array of contexts in which I encounter them? It’s hard to process. It changes everything. If I acknowledge that the Kingdom has come near, how should I live?
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ answer to that question.
Ultimately, Jesus isn’t taking us to heaven. He’s bringing heaven to us.