We are in the middle of our study of the Sermon on the Mount. But before we jump back into the middle of it, we’ll take a running start review just to be sure we have the background in place before starting off again.
Matthew showed us the baptisms in chapter 3. We learned that the water baptism performed by John was a declaration by the one baptized that his/her life was now focused on the kingdom of heaven. That was the reason, therefore, that Jesus was baptized—to show that his focus from that point on was on this Kingdom. Immediately following the water baptism, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came down upon Jesus. The act was God’s baptism of Jesus with the Holy Spirit, declaring relationship and righteousness.
In chapter 4, just after the baptisms, Jesus is led by the Spirit to the wilderness. Satan arrives to attack (tempt) Christ concerning those very things declared by the baptisms—Kingdom focus, relationship as Son of God, and righteousness. In the first temptation to turn stones to bread, the Devil attempted to get Jesus to act on his own authority. This was an attack on the Kingdom focus that Christ declared as his intent. The next temptation—to throw himself down from a high point relying on the protection promised by God—reversed the relationship role that Jesus had with the Father, intending to make God the obedient servant of the Son. And in the third temptation, Satan tried to have Christ employ an unrighteous means for gaining a righteous result (an end-justifies-the-means scenario). But in all three temptations, Jesus realized victory not by exalting himself, but rather by humbling himself. In humility Jesus recognized God as his authority. He understood the proper relationship in that God was his Father. He maintained righteous living by having God as his motivation. In humility Christ faced Satan’s attack and stood without sin because he had the right Kingdom focus on relationship and righteousness.
After relating those two incidents—the baptisms and the temptations—Matthew has Christ sit on the mount and teach us those same principles declared by the baptisms and put into practice in the temptations. The Sermon on the Mount is about living in humility—having a Kingdom focus on relationship and righteousness.
The Beatitudes begin the sermon demonstrating the response in humility to attacks against our God-formed relationship and righteousness. The section ends with two metaphors. We are the salt of the earth. Without its purpose, salt is good for nothing. Our purpose lies in our humility—removing self in focus on God. And it is this humility that becomes the light on the hill. This is our life; this is our message.
Christ then quickly makes us aware that what he preaches is not a rejection of the old covenant. The old covenant must be fulfilled—and it would be in and by Christ. But the old covenant system of laws was based in the righteousness of God. In the New Covenant, this righteousness of God no longer takes the form of a codified system of rules to follow, but rather is written by God on the hearts of his covenant people (Jer 31:31). Jesus brings us several examples of just what this means.
In verses 21-26, he first tells us that the Law told us not to murder. But that law—that rule—was predicated on the righteousness of God that opposed any kind of destructive influence in relationship. That’s why Jesus says that selfish anger welling up in one against another is just like murder; it destroys relationship. It is not the way of humility that he has taught regarding our life for the Kingdom in focus on relationship and righteousness.
His next example in verses 27-30 provide the same kind of basis review. The Law told us that adultery was wrong. That law too was based on the righteous fact that unfaithfulness in marriage destroyed the marriage relationship. Therefore, it is not only a sexual act that creates unfaithfulness, but the mind and heart on sexual desire for others also destroys the marriage relationship. Whether an act is committed or not, unfaithfulness exists through the mind of lust.
Any disregard for the marriage damages relationship. The Law put in place a legal formality for divorce so that marriage commitment would not be so easily disregarded. But that law came from the righteous fact that a marriage relationship is intended to remain—after all, its picture is that of relationship with God. Do not divorce, righteousness (God) says.
In all these examples, there can be a righteous perspective on the negative. For instance there is righteous anger; Christ himself demonstrated this. Sexual desire is legitimate when directed within the spousal relationship. And divorce itself is a legitimate option when a marriage relationship has been destroyed through unfaithfulness. Christ’s point, however, is that in righteous living, we go beyond a list of rules to govern our lives and live rather in righteousness. That righteousness no longer is an external guideline; it becomes, for the New Covenant believer, the very essence of life in relationship with God and in focus on his Kingdom.
The next few verses (33-37) show us that the righteous live in integrity. Not just a law requiring us to keep a vow keeps us honest, but that righteousness from within manifests itself in a life that constantly walks in integrity. Jesus says that swearing by something should not mark our words as truth. The fact that we these words are ours should be enough. Remember that this is not a new “rule” to follow. We don’t cringe in court because we are required to swear to tell the truth. Christ’s comments here are about who we are and how we are perceived in life. Our lives ought to be and be conducted with honesty and integrity.
A slap in the face, especially in the Middle East is a tremendous insult. What Jesus has in mind here (38-48), it would appear, is not an offering of oneself to the destructive whim of another without self-defense. Here we see an encouragement to humility in the face of ridicule, insult, and even advantage-taking abuse. We should not rise up in self-pride against those who would attack, but continue in humility. If your pride is harmed, let it be harmed. Don’t seek retaliation for harmed pride. This section shows us the true meaning of love—a giving of oneself for the benefit of others. An attitude that smiles only on the promotion of self or on those who would love us is motivated not by love but by self-interest. Righteous love (true love) is the desire to give for the benefit of others regardless of consequences for us (gain or loss). That is why Jesus says here to be perfect as our Father in heaven. Being perfect or complete in love includes loving our enemies.
Chapter 6 changes slightly from statements of Law and the expansion of their basis in righteousness to examples encouraging consistency of good deeds with good motivation. Giving to the poor (6:1-4) should be part of our inherent righteousness, not an opportunity to gain praise or glory. It is impossible to give in such a way that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, while at the same time thinking about some reward we will receive in giving.
Prayer (6:5-15), an activity that is supposed to strengthen relationship between us and God, is actually harmed when our prayers are performed for our own selfish gain in being thought righteous. Note that in the prayer Christ offers, each phrase speaks to the same humility that characterizes the life for the Kingdom focusing on relationship and righteousness. He is our Father (relationship) whose name is hallowed (righteous). We want his Kingdom to come. We want not our own will, but his will to be done. We ask for daily bread, recognizing that it is God who sustains us. We pray for forgiveness for our wrongs, but also for grace to forgive others.
The fact the Jesus returns to this forgiveness concept immediately at the end of the prayer seems to indicate that the last two phrases are not independent, but relate to the forgiveness idea. The not leading to temptation, but deliverance from evil is in regard to our impulse to assert our pride in being wronged. The prayer leads us from that pride to remembrance of Christ’s forgiveness. Our own Kingdom hope is undeserved.
Jesus ends this section with the example of fasting (6:16-18). Again the same theme comes through. This activity of concentration on righteousness cannot be righteous if our goal is to gain glory in its performance.
Let’s return once more to the beginning to classify or outline what we have seen so far.
In The Temptations we found that Christ’s proper response was in not acting in self-interest (stones to bread), self-governance (God serves him), or self-glory (end justifies means).
In The Beatitudes emphasized this same humility in facing attack. We cannot respond in self-interest, with self-governance, or for self-glory. We are salt and light—we demonstrate (light) our purpose (salt) of following the Kingdom, focusing on relationship and righteousness.
The next section I call The Covenant Transition. It covers all Christ’s examples from 5:17 through 6:18. Here we are told that Christ would fulfill the old covenant. But the New Covenant is not of the same type—a codified list rules. Rather it is an internal righteousness established based on our relationship as children of God. These examples are grouped in three areas and follow the resistance of Christ to his temptations.
The first group in 5:21-37 is humility set Against Self-Interest. Each of these examples focuses on sinful selfish attitudes that harm relationships with others—especially others, I think, who are joined with us as covenant people of God. Whether it is anger, lust, divorce, disregard for our marriage relationships, or dishonesty, all harm relationships and all are motivated by self-interest.
The next group in 5:38-48 is humility set Against Self-Governance. Love of even our enemies shows the perfect righteousness of God’s love. We don’t expect God to follow with his required service of blessing as we live according to our designs. In humility we accept hurt, insult, and being taken advantage of as we serve God.
The last group is in 6:1-18. Here humility is set Against Self-Glory. In charity, in prayer, and in fasting our motivation is righteousness and relationship not to be seen as righteous or to be thought of as having great relationship with God.
A final comment must be made, and I think it comes especially in view in the section discussing love for our enemies. Jesus uses an example saying that if someone sues us for our tunic, to give our cloak as well. What exactly does this mean in our generation? If we are wrongly sued, should we settle without opposition giving more than what was sued for? We must avoid the temptation to think that Christ is establishing another set of rules here. Turning the cheek, giving our cloak, walking the extra mile are not rules but illustrations to teach principle. The principle is to live life in humility regarding ourselves (interest, governance, glory). How exactly we do that in the bazillion possible scenarios we could imagine or will face is something to be worked out on the basis of our own hungering and thirsting after righteousness. It is not the business of a pastor or teacher to tell us what to do, but rather we should be taught (just as Christ teaches) how to respond in the attitude of our hearts. The rightness of our actions will be established for us in pretty much direct relation to our pursuit of God. We can’t rely on an external list to tell us what to do. But neither can we rip up the list, flinging it in the air and saying we don’t have to worry about it. A cavalier approach is as wrong as a legalist approach. We must pursue God, desiring that which is holy. In that way—and only in that way—we will grow.