A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 5:1,2. Is the Sermon practical? (continued).

Nekhlyudov sat staring at the light of the lamp that burned low, and his heart stopped beating. Recalling all the monstrous confusion of the life we lead, he pictured to himself what this life might be like if people were taught to obey these commandments, and his soul was swept by an ecstasy such as he had not felt for many a day. It was as though, after long pining and suffering, he had suddenly found peace and liberation.

He did not sleep that night, and as happens to vast numbers who read the Gospels, he understood for the first time the full meaning of the words read and passed over innumerable times in the past. Like a sponge soaking up water he drank in all the vital, important and joyous news which the book revealed to him. And everything he read seemed familiar to him, confirming and making real what he had long known but had never fully understood nor really believed. But now he understood and believed…

He said to himself: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. But we seek all these things and obviously fail to attain them.

‘This, then, must be my life’s work. One task is completed and another is ready to my hand.’

That night an entirely new life began for Nekhlyudov, not so much because he had entered into new conditions of life but because everything that happened to him from that time on was endowed with an entirely different meaning for him. How this new chapter of his life will end, the future will show.

Tolstoy embodied in himself the tension between the ideal and the reality. For on the one hand he was convinced that to obey the Sermon on the Mount was ‘quite feasible’, while on the other hand his own mediocre performance told him that it was not. The truth lies in neither extreme position. For the standards of the Sermon are neither readily attainable by every man, nor totally unattainable by any man. To put them beyond anybody’s reach is to ignore the purpose of Christ’s Sermon; to put them within everybody’s is to ignore the reality of man’s sin. They are attainable all right, but only by those who have experienced the new birth which Jesus told Nicodemus was the indispensable condition of seeing and entering God’s kingdom. For the righteousness he described in the Sermon is an inner righteousness. Although it manifests itself outwardly and visibly in words, deeds and relationships, yet it remains essentially a righteousness of the heart. It is what a man thinks in his heart and where he fixes his heart (Cf. Mt.5:28; 6:21) which really matter. It is here too that the problem lies. For men are in their nature ‘evil’ (Mt.7:11). It is out of their heart that evil things come (Cf.Mk.7:21-23) and out of their heart their mouth speaks, just as it is the tree which determines its fruit. So there is but one solution: ‘Make the tree good, and its fruit good’ (Mt.7:16-20; 12:33-37). A new birth is essential.

Only a belief in the necessity and the possibility of a new birth can keep us from reading the Sermon on the Mount with either foolish optimism or hopeless despair. Jesus spoke the Sermon to those who were already his disciples and thereby also citizens of God’s kingdom and the children of God’s family (E.g.5:16, 48; 6:9, 32,33;7:11). The high standards he set are appropriate only to such. We do not, indeed could not, achieve this privileged status by attaining Christ’s standards. Rather by attaining his standards, or at least approximating to them, we give evidence of what by God’s free grace and gift we already are.
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:3-12. A Christian character: the beatitudes.


The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.