Even non-Christians have heard of the Sermon on the Mount. Christians have heard many sermons on it, but still find parts of it hard to understand—and hard to apply in our lives. John Stott puts it this way: “The Sermon on the 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” (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, InterVarsity Press, 1978, p. 15).
Let’s study it again. Perhaps we will find new treasures as well as old.
“Now when [Jesus] saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them” (Matt. 5:1-2). The crowds probably followed him, as they often did. The sermon was not designed for the disciples only. Jesus told them to spread his teachings throughout the world, and Matthew wrote it down for more than a billion people to read. These teachings are for everyone who is willing to listen.
First come the beatitudes (the word “beatitude” comes from the Latin word for blessed):
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 3). What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? Low self-esteem, low interest in spiritual things? Not necessarily. Many religious Jews called themselves “the poor,” for they often were poor, and they looked to God to supply their daily needs. So Jesus may have been referring to the faithful.
But “poor in spirit” suggests something more. Poor people know that they have needs. The poor in spirit know that they need God; they feel a lack in their lives. They do not imagine that they are doing God any favors by serving him. But Jesus says that the kingdom is for people like them. It is the humble, the dependent, who are given the kingdom of heaven. They must trust in the mercy of God.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (v. 4). This statement includes an irony, since the word for “blessed” can also mean “happy.” Happy are the sad, Jesus says for at least they have the comfort of knowing that their trials are temporary. Everything will be set right. But note that the beatitudes are not commands – Jesus is not saying it is spiritually superior to mourn. But in this world, many people are already mourning, and Jesus says that they will be comforted – presumably by the coming of the kingdom.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v. 5). In ancient society, land was often taken away from the meek. But in God’s way of doing things, that will also be set right.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (v. 6). Those who ache and yearn for justice (the Greek word for righteousness also means justice), will receive what they seek. Those who suffer from evil, who want things to be set right, will be rewarded. In this age, God’s people suffer from injustice, and we long for justice. Jesus assures us that our hopes will not be thwarted.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (v. 7). We need mercy in the day of judgment. Jesus is saying that we therefore should show mercy in this age. It is inconsistent for anyone to want justice, and yet cheat others, or to want mercy and yet be unmerciful. If we want the good life, we must live a good life.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (v. 8). A pure heart has only one desire. Those who seek only God will be sure to find him. Our desire will be rewarded.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (v. 9). The poor will not achieve their rights through violence. God’s children need to rely on him. We should show mercy and humility, not anger and strife. We cannot live in harmony with a kingdom of righteousness by acting unrighteously. Since we want the peace of God’s kingdom, we should live in the way of peace.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 10). Good people sometimes suffer because they are good. People take advantage of the meek. They may even resent those who do good, because a good example makes the bad people look worse. And sometimes the righteous, by helping the oppressed, weaken the social customs and rules that have given power to the wicked. We do not seek to be persecuted, but nevertheless, wicked people often persecute the righteous. Be of good cheer, Jesus says. Hang in there. The kingdom of heaven belongs to people like this.
Jesus then addresses his disciples more directly, using the second-person “you”: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (vs. 11-12).
There is an important phrase in this verse: “because of me.” Jesus expects that his disciples will be persecuted not just for being good, but because of their association with Jesus. So, when you are persecuted, rejoice and be glad—at least you are doing enough to be noticed. You are making a difference in this world, and you are sure to be rewarded.
Making a difference
Jesus also gave some short parable-like sayings about the way that his followers should affect the world: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (v. 13).
If salt lost its flavor, it would be worthless, for its flavor is what makes it valued. Salt is good precisely because it tastes different than other things. In the same way, Jesus’ disciples are scattered in the world—but if they are just like the world, they are not doing any good.
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house” (vs. 14-15). The disciples are not to hide themselves—they are to be seen. Their example is part of their message.
“In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (v. 16). Later, Jesus criticized the Pharisees for doing works in order to be seen (6:1). But good works should be seen—for God’s praise, not our own.
How should the disciples live? Jesus will get to that in verses 21-48. But he begins with a caution: When you hear what I say, you might wonder if I am trying to eliminate the Scriptures. I’m not. I am doing and teaching exactly what the Scriptures say I should. What I say will be surprising, but don’t get me wrong.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (v. 17). Many people focus here on the Law, and assume that the question is whether Jesus will do away with Old Testament laws. This makes the verse very difficult to interpret, since everyone agrees that Jesus Christ caused some laws to become obsolete, and that this was part of his purpose. Just how many laws are involved may be disputed, but everyone agrees that Jesus came to abolish at least some laws.
Jesus is not talking about laws (plural). He is talking about the Law (singular)—the Torah, the first five books of the Scriptures. He is also talking about the Prophets, another major section of the Bible. This verse is not about individual laws, but about the Scriptures as a whole. Jesus did not come to do away with the Scriptures, but to fulfill them.
This involved obedience, of course, but it went further. God wants his children to do more than follow rules. When Jesus fulfilled the Torah, it was not just a matter of obedience—he completed all that the Torah had ever pointed to. He did what Israel as a nation was not able to do.
Jesus then said, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (v. 18).
But Christians don’t have to circumcise their children, build booths out of tree branches, and wear blue threads in tassels. Everyone agrees that we don’t have to keep these laws. So what did Jesus mean when he said that none of the Law would disappear? For practical purposes, haven’t those laws disappeared?
There are three basic approaches to this. First, we can recognize that these laws have not disappeared. They are still in the Torah—but being in Torah doesn’t mean that we have to do them. This is true, but it does not seem to be what Jesus intended here.
A second approach is to say that Christians do keep these laws, but that we do so by having faith in Christ. We keep the law of circumcision in our hearts (Rom. 1:29) and we keep all ritual laws through faith. This is true, but it may not be what Jesus was saying right here.
A third approach is to observe that 1) none of the Law could become obsolete until everything was accomplished, and 2) everyone agrees that at least some of the Law has become obsolete. So we conclude 3) that everything was accomplished. Jesus fulfilled his mission, and the old covenant law is now obsolete.
However, why would Jesus say “until heaven and earth disappear”? Was it simply to emphasize the certainty of what he was saying? Why mention two “untils” if only one of them was relevant? I don’t know. But I do know that there are many Old Testament laws that Christians do not have to keep, and verses 17-20 do not tell us which laws are which. If we quote these verses only for the laws we happen to like, we are misusing these verses. They do not teach the permanent validity of all laws, because not all laws are permanent.
Jesus then goes on to say, “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 19).
What are “these” commandments? Is Jesus referring to commandments in the Law of Moses, or to his own commands, which he will soon give? We must take into account the fact that verse 19 begins with the word “therefore” (which the NIV does not translate).
There is a logical connection between verses 18 and 19. Is it, The Law will remain, so these commandments should be taught? That would imply that Jesus was talking about the Law. But there are commandments in the Torah that are obsolete and should not be taught as law. So Jesus cannot be saying that we should teach all the laws of the Old Testament. That would contradict the rest of the New Testament.
More likely, the logical connection between verses 18 and 19 is different, focusing more on “until all is accomplished,” the closest phrase. The thought would be like this: All the Law will remain until everything is accomplished, and therefore (since Jesus did accomplish everything), we are to teach these laws (the laws of Jesus that we will soon read) instead of the old laws that he critiques. This makes better sense in the context of the sermon, and in the New Testament.
It is Jesus’ commandments that should be taught (Matt. 7:24; 28:20). Jesus explains why: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20).
The Pharisees were known for detailed obedience, tithing even on their herbs. But true righteousness is a matter of the heart, of a person’s character, not just conforming to certain rules. Jesus is not saying that we need better obedience to the same laws, but rather obedience to better laws, and he will soon illustrate what he means.
But we are not as righteous as we should be. We all need mercy, and we enter the kingdom not through our own righteousness, but in another way, as Jesus explained in verses 3-10. Paul explained it as the gift of righteousness, as justification by faith, as the perfect righteousness of Jesus being attributed to us as we become united to him through faith. But Jesus does not explain all that here.
Here is a summary of this section: Do not think that Jesus came to abolish the Scriptures. He came to do what they said. Every law remained in force until Jesus accomplished all that he was sent to do. Now he gives a new standard of righteousness, and we must conform to his standard and teach it.
But I say…
Jesus then gives six contrasts between the old teachings and the new. Six times he quotes a traditional teaching, most often from the Torah itself, and six times he explains that the old way is not enough. He offers a more exacting standard of righteousness.
Do not despise
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment'” (v. 21). This is a quote from the Torah and a summary of its civil laws. People heard this when Scripture was read to them. In the days before printing, people more often heard Scripture than they read it.
Who said this “to the people long ago”? God himself, at Mt. Sinai. Jesus is not quoting a distorted tradition of the Jews—he is quoting the Torah. He then contrasts it with a more rigorous standard:
“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (v. 22). Perhaps the Torah really meant this, but Jesus does not reason on that basis. He does not mention any authority for his teaching. It is true simply because he is the one who says it.
We will be judged on our anger. Someone who wants to kill, or wishes that someone else were dead, is a murderer in the heart, even if they are unable or unwilling to carry out the deed. However, not all anger is sin. Jesus himself was sometimes angry. But Jesus states it boldly: Anyone who is angry will be subject to divine judgment. The principle is stated in stark terms; the exceptions are not listed. Here and elsewhere in the sermon, we must realize that Jesus phrases his demands in an extreme form. We cannot lift sayings out of the sermon and act as if none of them have any exceptions.
Jesus then says, “Again, anyone who says to his brother, `Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, `You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (v. 22). Jesus is not referring new cases to the Jewish leaders. More likely, in the saying about “raca,” he is quoting something that the scribes were already teaching. Next, he says that the penalty for evil attitudes goes much further than a civil court—it goes all the way to the final judgment.
Jesus himself called people “fool” (Matt. 23:17, same Greek word). We cannot take these sayings as legalistic rules that must be enforced to the letter. No, they are startling statements designed to make a point. Here, the point is that we should not despise other people. This principle is beyond the intent of the Torah, but it is the true righteousness that characterizes the kingdom of God.
Jesus then gives two parables to illustrate: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (vs. 23-24).
Jesus lived in an old covenant age, and his affirmation of old covenant laws does not mean that they are still in force today. His parable points out that interpersonal relationships have priority over sacrifices. If someone has something against you (whether justified or not), that person should have taken the first step, but if that person does not, do not wait. Take the initiative.
However, it is not always possible. Jesus is not giving a new law, but stating a principle in bold terms: we should try to reconcile.
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny” (vs. 25-26).
Again, it is not always possible to settle matters out of court. Nor should we let false accusers get away with extortion. Nor is Jesus making a prediction that the civil courts will never have mercy. Again we see that we cannot treat Jesus’ words as precise laws. Nor is he simply giving us wise advice about how to stay out of debtors’ prison. Rather, he is telling us to seek peace because that is the way of true righteousness.
Do not lust
“You have heard that it was said, `Do not commit adultery'” (v. 27). God said it on Mt. Sinai. But Jesus tells us “that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
The tenth commandment prohibited lust, but the seventh commandment did not. It prohibited “adultery”—a behavior that could be regulated by civil laws and penalties. Jesus makes no attempt to have Scriptural support behind his teaching. He does not need it. He is the living Word, and has more authority than the written Word.
Jesus’ teaching falls into a pattern: The old law says one thing, but true righteousness requires much more. He then gives extreme statements to drive the point home. When it comes to adultery, he says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (vs. 29-30).
Yes, it is better to lose a body part than to lose eternal life. But that is not really our choice, because eyes and hands cannot cause us to sin, and if we remove them, we have committed another sin. Sin originates in the heart, and what we need is a changed heart. Jesus’ point is that we need surgery on our thoughts. We need extreme measures to eliminate sin.
Do not divorce
“It has been said, `Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce'” (v. 31). This refers to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which accepts the certificate of divorce as an already established custom among the Israelites. This law did not allow a remarried woman to remarry her first husband, but other than this rare situation, it did not make any restrictions. The Law of Moses permitted divorce, but Jesus did not.
|He that is meek, and a peacemaker, and poor in spirit, and merciful, how shall he cast out his wife? He that is used to reconcile others, how shall he be at variance with her that is his own? Chrysostom|
“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (v. 32). This is a hard saying, both to understand and to apply. Suppose an evil man puts away his wife for no reason at all. Is she automatically a sinner? And is it a sin for anyone to marry this victim of divorce?
It would be a mistake for us to treat Jesus’ statement as an unalterable law. For one thing, Paul was inspired to realize that there is another legitimate exception for divorce (1 Cor. 7:15). Although this is a study of the Sermon on the Mount, we must remember that Matthew 5 is not the last word on the subject of divorce. What we learn here is only part of the picture.
Jesus’ saying here is a shocking statement designed to make a point—in this case the point that divorce always involves sin. God intended for marriages to be life-long, and we must strive to keep them the way he intended. Jesus did not attempt to discuss what we should do when things go wrong.
Do not swear
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord'” (v. 33). These principles are taught in Scripture (Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:31). But what the Torah clearly allowed, Jesus did not:
“But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King” (Matt. 5:34-35). Apparently the Jewish leaders allowed people to take oaths in these names, perhaps to avoid pronouncing the holy name of God.
“And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your `Yes’ be `Yes,’ and your `No,’ `No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (vs. 36-37). The principle is simple: honesty—but the point is made in a startling way. Exceptions are allowed.
Jesus himself said more than Yes and No. He often said Amen, Amen. He said that heaven and earth would pass away, but his words would not. He called God as witness that what he was saying was true. Paul also wrote some oath-like affirmations, rather than simply saying Yes (Rom. 7:1, 2 Cor. 1:23).
So we see again that we should not take the bold statements of the Sermon on the Mount as prohibitions that must be enforced exactly as written. We should have simple honesty, but we can on occasion emphasize the truth of what we are saying.
|What Jesus emphasized in his teaching was that honest men do not need to resort to oaths; it was not that they should refuse to take an oath if required by some external authority to do so. Stott, p. 102.|
In a court of law, to use a modern example, we are allowed to “swear” to tell the truth, and ask God to help us tell the truth. It is nitpicking to say that “affirm” is acceptable but “swear” is not. In a court of law, these words mean the same thing—and both are more than a simple Yes.
Do not seek revenge
Jesus again quotes the Torah: “You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth'” (v. 38). It is sometimes said that this was merely a maximum limit for vengeance in the Old Testament. It was indeed a maximum, but it was sometimes a minimum, too (Lev. 24:19; Deut. 19:21).
But what the Torah required, Jesus prohibited: “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person” (v. 39). But Jesus himself resisted evil persons. He drove moneychangers out of the temple. The apostles resisted false teachers. Paul objected when soldiers started to flog him. Jesus’ statement is again an exaggeration: It is permissible to resist evil persons. Jesus would allow us, for example, to resist evil persons by reporting crime to the police.
Jesus’ next statements must be seen as exaggerations, too. That does not mean we can dismiss them as irrelevant. Rather, we must receive the principle, and we must allow it to challenge our behavior, without turning these rules into a new law-code as if exceptions were never allowed.
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In some circumstances, of course, it would be better to walk away, as Peter did (Acts 12:9). Nor is it wrong to voice an objection, as Paul did (Acts 23:3). Jesus is teaching a principle, not a rule that must be kept in a rigid way.
“And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (vs. 40-42). If people sue you for ten thousand dollars, you do not have to give them twenty thousand. If someone steals your car, you do not have to give your truck as well. If a drunk asks for ten dollars, you do not have to give anything.
The point in Jesus’ extreme sayings is not that we have to let people take advantage of us, nor that we should reward them for doing so. Rather, it is that we should not take revenge. Try to make peace; do not try to hurt others.
Do not hate
“You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy'” (v. 43). The Torah commands love, and it commanded Israel to kill all the Canaanites and to punish all evil-doers.
“But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44). Jesus teaches a different way, a way less like the world. Why? What is the model for all this radical righteousness?
“That you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (v. 45). We are to be like he is, and he loved his enemies so much that he sent his Son to die for them. We cannot send our children to die for our enemies, but we are to love them just as much and pray for them to be blessed. We fall short of the standard that Jesus says is right. But our frequent failures do not mean that we should quit trying.
Jesus reminds us that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (v. 45). He is merciful to all.
“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (vs. 46-47). We are called to do more than what is natural, more than unconverted people do. Our inability to be perfect does not change our calling to seek to improve.
Our love for others is to be complete, to extend to all peoples, and that is what Jesus means when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).
Evidence of exaggeration
|Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment||Quote from Ex. 20:13, and summary of OT civil laws about murder||Anyone who is angry with a brother will be subject to judgment
Anyone who says, `fool!’ will be in danger of hell
First be reconciled to your brother
Settle matters out of court
You will not get out until you have paid the last penny
|Jesus was sometimes angry; not all anger is sin
Jesus called people “fool”
It is not always possible
It is not always possible
Sometimes debts are forgiven
|Do not commit adultery||Quote from Ex. 20:14||anyone who lusts has already committed adultery
If your eye or hand causes you to sin, remove it
Eyes and hands cannot cause sin; and removing them is a sin
|Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce||Reference to Deut. 24:1-4||Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness,
causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery
|Paul allowed another exception
The man commits adultery, too.
If she does not remarry, she is not an adulteress.
|Keep the oaths you have made to the Lord||Accurate paraphrase of Num. 30:2 and Deut. 23:31||Do not swear at all
Let your `Yes’ be `Yes’
|No need to say “affirm” instead of “swear”
Jesus and Paul said more than “Yes” to affirm their words
|Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth||Quote from Lev. 24:19; Deut. 19:21||Do not resist an evil person
Turn the other cheek
Give double what they ask
|Nonviolent resistance is permissible; Jesus even used some force
We can object or walk away
Not always required – do not reward evildoers
|Love your neighbor
hate your enemy
|Quote from Lev. 19:18
Exaggeration of Torah
|Love your enemies and pray for them
|Usually a quote or paraphrase of Torah||Even more is required — who can obey these startling demands?||Exceptions often exist|
Author: Michael Morrison