“Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them” (Matthew 5:1-2).
Today teachers generally stand to lecture. Preachers stand to preach their sermons to the congregation. When Jesus taught, he sat on a mountain (probably more of a hillside), and his listeners spread out around him. As Moses received the word of God on Mount Sinai and shared it with the people of Israel, so Jesus shared his word with his disciples on a mountain.
In this outdoor classroom, the closest disciples sat at the feet of the teacher. They had committed time to follow him; they wanted to hear every word. More casual followers and the merely curious were in the back of the crowd. If they had made no commitment to Jesus but were just stopping by to hear him for one day, they could not be as close to him while he taught.
Customs have changed. People from the first century, if they could visit a twenty-first century American congregation, would be astonished to see the back pews filled and the front pews empty. They would think that most American churchgoers have only a shallow commitment to the Lord, a passing interest rather than true discipleship. I know one pastor who even rotated the hymnals, moving the worn volumes to the front pews and putting the pristine hymnals taken from the front in the back pews of the church.
Now, when Jesus taught, Matthew was one of the front-row students. He would be named as one of the twelve apostles, which means that he would be sent out to tell others what he had heard Jesus say. He memorized the preaching of Jesus and repeated it often, so we can trust his account to be accurate, a true record of Jesus’ sermon. To be a disciple means more to love Jesus: being a disciple means listening carefully to Jesus and repeating what he says for the benefit of others. Disciples learn by imitating. Even today, God calls us to imitate Jesus.
We have a problem: the standards Jesus sets are too high for us to achieve. We can sit and listen, we can repeat his words, but we cannot fulfill them. Only Jesus can fulfill the Law. Only Jesus can offer the promises of the Gospel. In the end, “repent and believe” is the genuine reaction a disciple has to the words of Jesus. Anything more is really less. When we struggle to be like Jesus, we fall short. When we repent of our sins and believe his promise to rescue us, we are rescued.
More than rescued, we are transformed, being shaped to resemble Jesus. We will not resemble him in height or skin color or any outward appearance; in those, we remain diverse, just as God created us. But in mindset, in attitude, in behavior, we become more like Jesus—not by the power of his commandments, but by the power of his forgiveness. As we see his blessings at work in our lives, we know the truth about Jesus and about ourselves. That truth sets us free. J.