The Sermon on the Mount (1)
A college teacher once asked her students to write a short essay after reading the Sermon on the Mount. Here were three of their remarks: 1) “There is an old saying that ‘you shouldn’t believe everything you read, and it applies in this case.’” 2) “It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect, and no one is.” 3) “The things asked in this sermon are absurd.” (Yancey). A journalist, with a little more maturity, wrote this comment: “The Sermon on the Mount introduced a new moon in the moral universe that has exerted its own force of gravity ever since” (Ibid.). One biblical scholar states: “The Sermon on Mount is probably the best known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed” (Stott). Let’s begin a study of this thought-provoking sermon. We want to look at three aspects of it in this lesson: its broad and immediate settings, its introduction, and its transition. We must try to transport ourselves back to the Jewish world in Palestine of about 30 A.D. if we would hear the sermon in a similar way as did its first listeners. Hopefully, this approach will cause us to be stirred by the message, wisdom, and insights of our Lord!
Let’s consider now the sermon’s broad and immediate settings. By broad setting, let’s see its context in Matthew’s gospel. To do this, look carefully at these five passages:
“And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Mt. 7:28-29
“Now it came to pass, when Jesus finished commanding His twelve disciples, that He departed from there to teach and to preach in their cities.” Mt. 11:1
“Now it came to pass, when Jesus finished these parables, that He departed from there.” 13:53
“Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that He departed from Galilee and came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.” Mt. 19:1
“Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings, that He said to His disciples, ‘You know, that after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” Mt. 26:1
In all of these passages, we see a reference in each to something that was previously said. In other words, these passages point back to a discourse that Jesus had just given. Matthew’s gospel is unique in that he puts five long discourses of Jesus between all the other events that take place in Jesus’ ministry. The first long discourse is found in chapters 5-7 and is what we call “The Sermon on the Mount.” So this discourse is part of five discourses found in the book of Matthew: the five topics for each of these discourses are: discipleship, missions, the kingdom, church relationships, and future events. Matthew is the only gospel that alternates between narratives and discourses. The original readers of Matthew would certainly find Jesus’ discourses very interesting, especially this first one.
Now look at Matthew 4:25: “Great multitudes followed Him—from Galilee, and Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan. And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated, His disciples came to Him.” So we see here that there are Jews from all parts of Palestine with Jesus. Now what do we know about this audience? Here’s a little history lesson. One writer said this: “During Jesus’ lifetime, revolt was in the air. Pseudo-messiahs periodically emerged to lead rebellions, only to be crushed in ruthless crackdowns. To take just one example, a prophet known as 'the Egyptian' attracted multitudes into the wilderness where he proclaimed that at his command the walls of Jerusalem would fall; the Roman governor sent a detachment of soldiers after them and killed 4000 of the rebels” (Yancey). Another writer described the times in this way: “The chief of those troubles was a rising led by a man named Judas, who with a band of fellow-insurgents raided the royal palace at Sepphoris [about 3 miles from Nazareth] and seized the contents of the armory. Thus equipped for military action, they dominated the region and were not put down until Varus, Roman governor of Syria, marched south with two legions to crush the revolt and pacify the land. The Roman idea of pacification was demonstrated by Varus’s crucifixion of 2000 ringleaders of the revolt: their bodies remained fastened to the crosses along the main roads for a long time, as a deterrent to others. ... No one, even in the remotest parts of Galilee, could forget the problems and conflicts raised by the Roman presence. ... The hope of liberation burned in the hearts of many, whether it was expected to come by divine intervention or by armed struggle. When Jesus launched His Galilean ministry by proclaiming release for the captives and liberation for the oppressed, he had to make it crystal clear that this proclamation was not to be realized by military or political means; and many of His hearers were slow to believe that He meant what he said” (Bruce). Here's a final observation: “In [Jesus’] own day, people looked for a political deliverer from the Romans who would restore sovereignty to Israel. He would inaugurate a universal reign of peace, justice, and righteousness, which even the Gentile nation would acknowledge. People like the Zealots and Pharisees, and even the disciples, had their own ideas as to how this would be accomplished and what roles they would play in the coming kingdom” (Punton). Here's the immediate context: “In Matthew 4, the kingdom was announced as being very near (n.b. v. 17). Indeed, the King was personally present among them. His healing miracles [just performed] demonstrated that He was indeed the Messiah. Great multitudes followed Him because of [these] miracles (Matt. 4:25). In view of these multitudes, the Lord gathered His disciples together to instruct them concerning the spiritual requirements that were necessary for entrance into [His] kingdom. It is probably best to understand these 'disciples' in a broader sense as including many more than just the twelve. ... [We see in 7:28 that the crowd also was probably listening in too.] The Sermon on the Mount was addressed to [these Jewish] followers of Christ. The main purpose of the Sermon was to set forth the righteousness that was necessary in order to qualify for entrance into [Jesus' spiritual] kingdom” (Zeller).
Now let's look at the sermon's introduction. Let's read verses 3-16: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” In the first part of this introduction, we find a description of the disciple's character. Then Jesus talks about the disciple's persecution, and then He explains the disciple's influence. The character of Jesus' disciples had its roots in Old Testament: Isaiah 66;2—“But on this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word”; Isaiah 61:2—“To proclaim the acceptable year of Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion”; Psalm 37:11—“But the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace”; Isaiah 55:2—“Listen carefully to Me and eat what is good, and your soul delight in abundance”; Psalm 18:25—“With the merciful You show Yourself merciful”; Psalm 24:3-4—“Who may stand in God's holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully”; Psalm 34:14—“Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it”; Isaiah 51:7—“Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, you people in whose heart is My law: Do not fear the reproach of men, nor be afraid of their insults.” So Jesus' description of His disciples' character is really nothing new; however, to those looking for a political kingdom, they would be greatly disappointed. In fact, Jesus is showing how His disciples are the true Israel. To be in the true Israel, you must declare yourself spiritually bankrupt, you must weep for those oppressed, you must be tamed by God, you must be craving righteousness, you must be seeking the best for others, you must serve God with undivided loyalty and unmixed motives, you must be peacemakers (and not rebellious fighters) must have sounded so strange to those who lived in an explosive land at a time of great rebellion, and you must expect persecutions for righteousness' sake. Jesus repeats that word ”righteousness” again (which He had already used in v. 6) for this is an important concept that will form the sermon's theme—it is more than just 'being good'—it is a whole orientation of life towards God and His will (France). Is this our character? Notice, that these are not just a list of rules. Jesus is aiming for something deeper—for our spirits, for our submission, for our dependency, for our loyalty. Does our righteousness come from the inside out?
Now Jesus explains some more about the disciple's persecution. His call is not sugar coated. His disciples will be verbally abused, physically abused, socially abused, just as He Himself was. The words that jumped out to the listeners would have been those found in v. 11 “for My sake”. No other rabbi had ever challenged his followers to suffer for his own teachings. Jesus was placing Himself and loyalty to Him squarely in the center of this sermon (France). Then Jesus makes another startling statement. Most Jews at this time had felt there were no longer any prophets like those in the OT, so Jesus' words that his disciples would be persecuted as the prophets indicated that they would have an extraordinary mission (Keener). Have you suffered any type of persecution for our Master lately? Jesus is letting us know quite clearly that to be His disciple will not make us the most popular people in town. We will often be going against the grain. Have we experienced the pain and the joy of those old prophets as we try to uphold Jesus' name and teachings before others around us?
Then Jesus discusses the disciple's influence upon their world. He does this with three images. The first is salt. Salt is a preservative and adds flavor, and the disciple makes this world a purer and more palatable place. Disciples must be diligent to not let the world cause them to lose their distinctive character. A disciple of the kingdom who does not live like one is worth about as much as tasteless salt. The rabbis commonly used salt as an image for wisdom, so Jesus may also be warning us not to become foolish disciples that cannot influence others. The second image is light. As God is light (1 John 1:5) and as Jesus is light (John 8:12), so the disciples are to be an influence in their environments. Light affects the environment by being distinctive. The disciple who is visibly different from other men will have an effect on them. The third image is a city. A city set on a hill is very visible, and the light from disciples should also be visible, and not hidden, before others. Such an influence is not to bring glory to ourselves, but to bring glory to our Father in heaven. Interestingly, the expression “Father in heaven” is never found in the Old Testament! Jesus has introduced here a very personal relationship between the disciples and God. How are we influencing our world? Have we lost our saltiness? Do our neighbors and fellow employees see that distinctive character of the disciple? Are we letting our light so others will glorify God?
Now let's examine the sermon's transition. “Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will be no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20). As in speeches today, the transition serves as a bridge between the introduction and the body of the sermon. It can be divided into three parts. First, there is a clarification, then an explanation, and finally an exhortation. Jesus clarifies that His message is not one designed to debunk or to put down the Old Testament—the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings were the three divisions of the Hebrew Old Testament. No, Jesus says that He has come to show the fulfillment of what the Old Testament was teaching. “The whole OT was pointing to what Jesus was bringing into being. ... In the background may be the Jewish expectation that the Messiah's role would include the definitive exposition of the law. Jesus' teaching will be the intended culmination of the Old Testament’s teachings. 'Truly' is used 31 times in Matthew—it is Jesus' signature statement and it is like the prophets' 'Thus says the Lord'” (France). Here again we see Jesus placing Himself at the center of the sermon.
After this clarification, Jesus then explains that His disciples must continue to have a great respect for the Old Testament. He who is great in Jesus kingdom is the one who both does and teaches what the law commands. Notice that order—the living of the command comes first and then the teaching flows out of that obedience. Jesus opposed not the law but an illegitimate interpretation of it that stressed regulations more than character. Jesus' Jewish audience would not have been surprised by this statement.
But they were then blown away with His next exhortation in verse 20, which becomes the theme of the entire sermon—his disciples' righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees!
Who were these groups? “The scribes were originally people who kept records and wrote documents, and became public administrators of high standing. But over the centuries, they became experts in the law of Moses. … There were two schools among the scribes at the time of Jesus. Hillel was milder and more generous than Shammai. … The scribe was the only person, apart from the chief priests and members of the [aristocratic] families, who could become a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling authority. … The Pharisees … set out to follow the commands of the law exactly. They took the greatest care to observe the rituals of cleanliness. Some priests joined this group, but the members were mostly laymen, including craftsmen, farmers, and merchants. They met together for meals. … For all their piety, they placed great burdens of religious obligation on the ordinary people. They had lost the spirit of the law and turned devotion into a system. God became to them almost a machine, bound to bless the person who carried out the right rituals at the right time” (Thompson). Most Jews saw the scribes and Pharisees as the supreme examples of Judaism, but Jesus says that His disciples' righteousness must exceed or go beyond the righteousness of these groups or they would not be able to enter into His kingdom! “A greater righteousness, a relationship of love and obedience to God, which is more than a literal observation of regulations. His disciples must have a deeper commitment to God beyond that of legalism” (France). “His disciples must go beyond mechanical obedience to rules in order to enter the kingdom. Jesus emphasizes penetration to the spirit behind the law, demanding not less, but more devotion than [that shown by] the scribes and Pharisees (Lewis). It is a righteousness that fulfills the Old Testament's teachings, as illustrated in 5:12-48, which exceeds the interpretations of the scribes and which exceeds the practices of the Pharisee, as illustrated in 6:1-18. Jesus is now ready to explain how His righteousness differs from that of the scribes and Pharisees—and this is what the rest of His sermon will do.
Have we exalted regulations over character formation in our study of Bible? Have we created a righteousness closer to that of the Jewish religious leaders or to Jesus? Have we turned devotion into a system? Is God a heavenly bellhop or a heavenly Father? Are we living lives of grace that show a righteousness beyond that of Judaism or are we just trying to follow a spruced up law of Moses? As Jesus put Himself at the center of this sermon, have we put Him at the center of our lives? Are we willing to suffer persecution for Him? Are we willing to do and teach the commandments? Are we willing to live out a righteousness that goes beyond that of legalism or keeping regulations? We'll see in subsequent lessons how Jesus' view of righteousness, explained in this sermon, is so vastly different from that of the Jewish religious leaders. It starts with our willing to admit our spiritual bankruptcy, with our letting Jesus break us, with our craving for Jesus' righteousness, with our willing to suffer persecutions for Jesus' teachings, with our willing to do good works in order that God may be glorified. Are you willing to be Jesus' disciple with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? “The Sermon on the Mount introduced a new moon in the moral universe that has exerted its own force of gravity ever since.”