Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
September 20, 2016
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
Having spoken about storing treasure in heaven rather than on earth, being generous, and serving God rather than mammon, Jesus then addressed anxiety:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?1
By starting with therefore I tell you, Jesus connects this next section of the Sermon with what He has just said. Having chosen to give God the primary position in our lives, rather than our possessions, we are encouraged to put our trust in God for our basic needs. The understanding that God is our Father, that He loves us and will provide our daily physical requirements, should result in a deep trust in Him—a trust which counters anxiety or worry about our day-to-day physical needs. This teaching would have spoken powerfully to the first disciples, as they, along with Jesus, were itinerant preachers and teachers, unsure where their daily provisions would come from. Though most Christians today are not in similar situations, the principle of trusting in God’s care still applies.
The Greek word merimnaō, which is translated as anxious or worry, means to be troubled with cares, to be anxious. The King James Version translates it as take no thought for your life, while contemporary translations render it as do not be anxious or do not worry. Worry, as used here, is the opposite of faith. Jesus’ message is to have faith in the Father, to believe that He is the creator and ruler of all things, and to trust that He will provide for His children.
Jesus uses simple analogies from nature to make the point that we are to put our trust in God rather than in possessions and sources of income. He addresses our fears and worries about not having what we need today and about the future.
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?2
While the birds may not sow or reap, it doesn’t mean that God just drops food into their mouths; they do put effort into finding it. Yet He supplies their nourishment. He gives to the beasts their food, and to the young ravens that cry.3 Jesus then uses a “lesser to greater” argument4 to make His point: If God feeds the birds, will He not feed you, who are of more value than the birds? The understanding that God’s human creation is of more importance to Him than the nonhuman creation is seen in the story of creation,5 where humans are the final and climactic act of creation and are given authority over the animal creations.6 Jesus makes this point as well:
Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.7 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep!8
The second example from nature is the lilies in the field. The wildflowers which grow in fields and meadows exert even less effort than the birds, yet Jesus considered their beauty more magnificent than kings’ apparel and possessions. Such beautiful flowers light up a field in color, but last a very short time; and in Jesus’ day, grass and flowers were cut and used for cooking fuel. The same “lesser to greater” logic is used here: If our Father, the Creator of all the beauty in nature, the universe, and all that it contains, has made flowers which have such a short lifespan so beautiful, how much more will He supply our physical needs such as clothing?
Placed in between the examples of the birds and the flowers is a saying which shows how useless worry is. Translators differ on whether this should be rendered as adding a cubit (about half a meter) to someone’s height, or as adding a single hour to one’s lifespan, as it can legitimately be translated either way. I’ve included both possibilities here:
Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?9
Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?10
Whichever way it’s understood, the answer to this question is of course self-evident: There is no sense in worrying, as it changes nothing.
After pointing out that worry doesn’t change things, Jesus asks:
If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?11
Several times in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus used the phrase you of little faith when speaking to those who were afraid or anxious instead of trusting God.12 Faith, as used here, means confidence that God can and will act on His people’s behalf.13 Having made the point that the God who feeds the animals and clothes the earth with the beauty of nature is our Father who loves us and will take care of our needs, Jesus again says: therefore (taking these things into account) we need not be anxious or worry:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.14
As He has done twice before in the Sermon, Jesus makes a comparison between what the nonbelievers do and what believers should do.15 The Greek word epizēteō, translated as seek, expresses the concept of intensely searching for, or craving, a particular thing.16 While others may prioritize the material things of this world, Christians should focus on the fact that we have a loving Father in heaven who knows what we need and will supply those needs without our being anxious and worrying about them.
Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.17
Here the Greek word for seek, zēteō, means to look for something in order to find it, to try to obtain, or desire to possess. Our first desire should be for God’s rule in our lives and His righteousness. We’re to value what He values, to obey what Scripture teaches. The believer’s orientation will be different from others as we seek to live Jesus’ teachings. As we do so, we’re told that He will supply our material needs. R. T. France makes a good point:
The Father who knows your needs and whose way you seek to follow will himself supply those needs. Perhaps we should note, however, that it is these things (basic material needs) which are to be supplied. The disciple is promised survival, not affluence.18 (More on this point later.)
This portion of the Sermon ends with:
Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.19
We’re told not to worry about tomorrow’s potential troubles today, but to trust God for today’s challenges and leave tomorrow’s with Him. Each day will have its “troubles,” but in light of what Jesus taught here, we have the assurance that by God’s grace He will see us through them. Jesus doesn’t teach that we won’t have troubles, that our lives will always be smooth sailing, but He calls us to face our troubles with faith in our Father rather than with anxiety.
God is our Father and, as believers, we are His children. As His children, who seek Him and His righteousness, we can trust that our Father will supply our needs of food, drink, and clothing. He often gives us much more than the basics, but this passage promises the basics. The way He supplies isn’t specified, but like the birds used in Jesus’ example, it’s understood that we will have to put effort into feeding and clothing ourselves and our families. This doesn’t always mean having a job with a paycheck, as for example, many missionaries serve God without getting paid by a specific church or missionary organization. But as any missionaries in such a situation will tell you, they work extremely hard in their service to the Lord and others, and they trust God to supply their needs.—And He does.
Many Christians who seek God’s direction in their lives are led to use their God-given talents in some form of gainful employment, being a Christian influence in their workplace, raising their children to know and love God. They too put effort into serving God in the place He has led them. In their case, they have a steady paycheck. But having a paycheck doesn’t mean that God isn’t supplying for them. They may have prayed for God to supply their employment, and as Christians they honor God in doing their job honestly, faithfully, and as a Christian example to others. God supplies for them through their work, as He supplies for the birds. It is often through the tithing and giving of Christians with paychecks that churches, missionary organizations, and missionaries are able to do the work of taking the gospel to others.
When God blesses Christians with affluence, they become stewards of His blessings and are called to be generous toward others. The danger affluent Christians face is the risk of shifting their allegiance or priorities away from God toward material things, which Jesus clearly warns against in this portion of the Sermon. Elsewhere Jesus said:
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.20
Because wealth can compete with God for a person’s loyalty, those who have wealth can find it more difficult to let God rule and reign in their lives. This point is also made in the parable of the sower:
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.21
While it can be an added challenge for a Christian to have wealth, one can be both wealthy and a disciple.
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus.22
There are many wealthy Christians who heed the warnings about riches and generously give to those in need, as good stewards of God’s blessing. Most of us are not wealthy, but we too are called to have right priorities regarding money and material things. We are called to provide for our families, to do our best to have financial security to meet their needs, while also being mindful of not letting our financial goals take priority over our relationship with and service to God. As believers, we are responsible to use our finances for God’s glory, to care for our loved ones and also to help others; to be generous, to give back to God through our tithes and offerings, and to share our financial blessings with those in need.
As we read of Jesus’ promise that God will supply food, drink, and clothing, we need to remember to read this promise in the context in which it was spoken. He was teaching His disciples, those who traveled with Him, who went out two by two from city to city, not carrying money, spare clothes, or food. His message to these disciples was to not worry about their physical needs, but to instead trust God to supply them. Also, Jesus never said that no believer would ever be without food, water, or clothes. Certainly Christians throughout history have starved to death in famines or in prisons, or have lost all of their material goods for one reason or another.
The message here is not that Christians will never have difficulties or lean times, or that our lives will be trouble free, or that we can expect God to supply for us abundantly at all times and in all places, or that we will not have to work for our sustenance. The message is that as believers, we are called to trust our Father in all things, and to not worry. We are in His hands. He loves us, feeds us, takes care of us, and supplies our needs—sometimes abundantly. There are cases where Christians are not protected or rescued from extremely difficult or tragic situations; but even if we were to find ourselves in that type of situation we would still be called to put our complete trust in Him, knowing that He loves us, we are His children, and we will live with Him forever.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 6:25.
2 Matthew 6:26–30.
3 Psalm 147:9.
4 The lesser to greater argument, known as an “a fortiori” statement, is one in which an accepted fact or conclusion is made, and based on the acceptance of that statement, another greater point is understood to be true. Often such statements are structured as: If … how much more…? If God so clothes the grass of the field, … will he not much more clothe you?
5 Genesis 1:26–28.
6 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 268.
7 Matthew 10:31; also Luke 12:7.
8 Matthew 12:12.
9 Matthew 6:27 NKJV.
10 Matthew 6:27 ESV.
11 Matthew 6:30.
12 Matthew 8:26, 14:31, 16:8.
13 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 270.
14 Matthew 6:31–32.
15 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers,what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:46–47).
When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matthew 6:7–8).
16 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 161 no. 103.
17 Matthew 6:33.
18 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 272.
19 Matthew 6:34.
20 Mark 10:25.
21 Matthew 13:22.
22 Matthew 27:57.