Knowing God Makes All the Difference
(Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org)
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are simply natural and those who have supernatural life in them. Some were born only once; others have been born again. Many do not trust and treasure Jesus as Lord and Savior. A precious few do.
For now, it can be difficult to distinguish these two types of people. Though false professions abound and unbelievers demonstrate remarkable virtue in society, at the bottom of our shared humanity lies one great difference: whether we truly know God himself, through Jesus, or not. Given enough time, the tree will bear fruit, or not. The truth will become plain as to whether we truly have supernatural life in our soul, or not.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus points to “the Gentiles” as those who do not know God. Four separate times they are negative examples of what Christians are not to be. But against our natural instincts, and through the grace of God’s word and Spirit, Jesus calls us not to Gentile love (Matthew 5:47), not to Gentile prayer (6:7), not to Gentile fears (6:32), and not to Gentile leadership (20:25; also Mark 10:42; Luke 22:25). In short, he calls us to live like we know God.
Not Like the Gentiles
Until the coming of Christ, Gentiles (non-Jews) were, by and large, merely natural, worldly persons, born under sin and still under sin, “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). God chose Abraham, birthing a special ethnic people to whom he revealed himself. God spoke specially to his chosen people, the Jews. Meanwhile, the Gentiles, with rare exceptions, did not hear from or know the true God.
Even in the ministry of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13; 1 Timothy 2:7), the stigma held. Paul wrote that Christ crucified was “folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23) and charged his converts to “no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds” (Ephesians 4:17). Peter also warned Christians of Gentiles who “speak against you as evildoers” (1 Peter 2:12); he drew a clear line between Christian conduct and “doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3).
Maybe most revealing of all, Paul writes to believers “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:4–5). At bottom, the issue is not ethnicity, but knowing God. Christianity makes the radical claim, and represents the remarkable reality, that through Jesus Christ, and by his Spirit, we know and enjoy the true God. Two kinds of people populate our world: those who know God in Christ, and those who do not.
Given the first-century expectations that Jews would know him, having been trusted with God’s oracles (Romans 3:2), and that Gentiles would not, we shouldn’t be surprised to find Jesus working with these categories in the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus calls his people, those who know the true God as Father, to kinds of love, prayer, life, and leadership that are distinct from “the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2) and “the passions of your former ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14). He calls us to love and pray and live and lead not according to our natural instincts but according to supernatural power and perspective and practice.
How will our love, our prayers, our anxieties, and our leadership be different from the course of this world when we know Jesus?
How Not to Love
One of Jesus’s most famous teachings is his startling call to enemy love. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Even Gentiles love their friends.
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)
So, we have Gentile love. Which is the same as tax-collector love. Even tax collectors love those who love them. Even Gentiles greet those who greet them. It’s only natural.
But Jesus calls his people to love and greet others beyond what is natural. He calls us to supernatural love that goes beyond the pattern and norms of this world. Love that doesn’t have its immediate reward in this life, but waits patiently for the heavenly reward. Love that transcends the expectations of this world, defying natural explanation, so that it eventually will be said of us that something is different about us.
Enemy love is what our Father has shown to us (Romans 5:8, 10), and it is what will show the world that we are “sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:45). Loving our enemies doesn’t earn our heavenly sonship but evidences it. We display the supernatural love of our heavenly Father when we love those who do not (yet) love us.
How Not to Pray
Just sentences later, Jesus casts a radical new vision for prayer, unlike the way a natural person prays. “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” (Matthew 6:7).
Apart from special revelation from God himself, in his word, and in his Son, natural people assume we need to secure or earn God’s attention with “many words” — by heaping up pious sounding phrases. Jesus paints a vastly different picture of his Father, who “knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). In Christ, we come to know God as he truly is, as a loving and intimate Father who sees and knows our every need. Which means we don’t have to flag him down with many words and empty phrases.
Jesus then models prayer that is astonishingly direct and simple: a mere fifty words (Matthew 6:9–13). Christians will pray differently than those who can only speculate what God is really like. The difference comes down to knowing the true God, not a figment of human imagination and conjecture. “Do not be like [the Gentiles], for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).
How Not to Fear
Jesus then turns to address the everyday fears and anxieties of life in this world. “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” (Matthew 6:25). He points his followers beyond the basics of human existence that can consume the natural mind, especially when food and drink and clothing become scarce. However, if we know God as Father, we know how he cares for his creatures and, all the more, his image-bearers.
Look at the birds, how he feeds them. Look at the lilies, how he clothes them. Are you not of more value to your Father than many birds and countless lilies? “Therefore,” Jesus says, “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” (Matthew 6:31–32).
Gentiles seek the things of earth without an eye to heaven. Jesus calls his people, who know his Father, to rise above the base concerns of natural people to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), banking on their Father’s help and concern.
How Not to Lead
Finally, we move to Matthew 20, where James’s and John’s mother asks Jesus if her sons can sit at his right and left in the kingdom. This is an audacious request, more so than she even knows. Jesus says such is not his to decide (Matthew 20:23), but then says more, pointing out the unsound foundation beneath her question.
Such a petition is founded on Gentile (or natural) assumptions about leadership as personal privilege. Jesus calls his men to another vision, the very vision of supernatural leadership he is living out as he walks toward the cross.
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25–28)
Natural leadership lords it over those in our charge. Gentile leadership exercises authority without self-giving service. But Jesus says, “It shall not be so among you.” He himself is cutting a new path, and summons his followers to join him. He does not use his followers for personal privilege and private benefit. He does not empty them to fill himself. Rather, in his fullness, he empties himself, without abdicating his lordship, for the good of his followers. He does not surrender his authority but wields it for the good of those in his charge, not for selfish ends.
Hope for the Gentiles
Jesus calls his people to be distinct from the world, its patterns, and what’s natural. He calls us, guided by his gospel and supplied by his Spirit, to be like our supernatural Father in heaven, who loved us when we were yet enemies, hears our simple childlike prayers, knows and cares for our every need, and exercise authority with grace and self-sacrifice, not dominance or heavy-handedness.
God’s transforming grace means there is great hope for Gentiles. The negative references to Gentiles in the Gospels soon erupt into magnificent hope for the Gentiles in Acts and Romans, in the great “turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). No Gentile, no matter how far off he once was, is beyond Christ’s reach. And our Lord loves to redeem the ways that we, Jew or Gentile, fail to love, pray, live, and lead as we ought.
God is not surprised that we need deep retraining, and often default back to our Gentile ways. Yet at every turn in our journey to final glory, knowing him makes all the difference.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Churchin Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.