A short commentary: The Sermon on the Mount (pt 1: Matthew chapter 5)

The following is part one of three on Matthew chapters five through seven. It is a short commentary and still a bit of a work in progress. All three parts will be posted over the next few weeks. (All Scripture NIV)

Matthew chapters five through seven record what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. It is the longest continuous teaching of Jesus recorded in Scripture. Jesus says at the end of chapter 7, “Therefore anyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like the wise man who built his house on the rock.” The direct context of that statement is the words of the Sermon on the Mount. These words of Jesus are not simply stand alone teachings to make a better person, but flowing out of the coming new birth, are ground points to live a life within the kingdom and, in turn, be its expression in the world. In other words, it could be said that this is what the kingdom of God looks like while we await all things to be made new. A few years ago I was drawn to what is known as the Beatitudes, the proclamations of blessings that open the Sermon on the Mount as recorded at the beginning of chapter 5. “Blessed are…”. I found that the majority of the things Jesus said we are blessed for are not ever really associated with what are thought of as blessing. Through this, and being drawn past the Beatitudes to the whole passage of the Sermon, I spent the next year and half reading Matthew chapters five through seven nearly every day in different translations. Even now, as a practice of habit and meditation, I begin each week with reading the Sermon on the Mount. It can be rather easy to believe in Jesus. It may be quite much harder to believe, and do, the things that he says and build your house on the rock.

Chapter 5 
1 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, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

To be blessed is to be within, a part of, what God is doing. What He is doing is making all things new. It is to vibrantly live what is the kingdom life. That kingdom life is counter to the ways of a fallen world. To be blessed is to be within, and to the natural way of living, an outward expression. It is the living and working out newness within a world that needs to be made new. It is what God is up to right now and you are a part of it. That is to be blessed. The Beatitudes are not explanations, they are not a bunch of formulas, but are announcements and calls to a way of life. These are rooted in the counterintuitive wisdom of God. These blessings are a strong mixture of what is of the now and what is of the later. The tension of a kingdom now and a kingdom yet to come, the tension of all things being made new and that all things will be made new. It is the favor of God. You are blessed if…

You are blessed if you are poor in spirit…if you are bankrupt spiritually and, in some way, or maybe many ways, you know it. Maybe you find find that you are not good a being spiritual, it doesn’t come easy. You feel ordinary, maybe substandard. Good news, the Kingdom of Heaven, what God is doing and what He will do, is for you. This is a proclamation that the kingdom has come for those who are like you, those who are left out and marginalized by those who consider themselves religious. It is a call to those, like the parable tells, who will stand far off, not even look up to heaven, but beat their breast and place themself into the forgiveness of God (1). It is the echo of Isaiah 61. It is a call, for the physician comes to those who need healed (2). The kingdom of heaven is yours. This Beatitude is the inaugural proclamation from which the rest of this sermon flows.

You are blessed if you mourn…if you see the world around you and it grieves you as it is lost, dying, deceived, decaying. You grieve because the state of this world has touched you personally. You don’t run from it, deny it. You are not comfortably numb. You are aware of the evil that harms this world, and it bothers you, it eats at you. Your mourning is a protest that this is not right. Good news, you will be comforted. God will comfort you now, he will meet you there, and will bring a deep comfort to you in what He is doing. Your mourning will allow the great capacity for joy at the making of all things new.

You are blessed if you are meek…you don’t play the game as the world does. You do not try to gain the world by greed, violence, using others, putting yourself first. You are not out for yourself to get yours. You are humble. You are not prideful in what you feel is your spiritual position, for as the parable also tells, you will not be justified before God in your pride (3). You are not calling down fire from heaven to burn up you enemies, for that is of the wrong spirit (4). You do not have to take, for you will inherit. In meekness, you may find yourself at a disadvantage. Good news, though you may not gain the world now, you will inherit it later.

You are blessed if you hunger and thirst for righteousness…you deeply desire things to be made right. Personally, the world around you. You mourn that it is not right. You have hope that Jesus is working to make things right. You participate in it. You are a harvester among the harvest that is plentiful (5). You feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, invite in the stranger, take care of the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner (6). You stand, strongly, for things that promote life, for what is anti-christ is anti-life. Good news, you will be filled with satisfaction that the kingdom is working itself ‘through the dough.’

You are blessed if you are merciful…you show kind treatment to one who could be treated harshly, you help the one who finds themself in a bad situation. You give mercy as you have received it, as you need it. You forgive as you have been forgiven (7). You are wary to judge, you are aware of the plank in your own eye (8). This is a fallen, angry, accusing world that lacks the human decency of mercy. You are never more like Satan, the accuser, when you accuse. You are never more like God than when you extend mercy. You will reap what you sow. Merciful? Good news, you will receive mercy for you.

You are blessed if you are pure in heart…you work to rid yourself of hypocrisy, pride, judgmentalism. You are sure to keep working out your salvation (9). Your heart remains unmixed, your motives are under review. You put yourself before God and ask him to search you, test you, and show you if there is any offensive way in you and to lead you in the way everlasting (10). Good news, you will continue in knowing God, discerning Him, seeing Him even when others do not. You will then, also, be able to see what He is doing and to participate in it. 

You are blessed if you are a peacemaker…you work to produce peace in what you do. Peace is a marked word of the new creation after the resurrection of Jesus (11). You promote reconciliation with God, peace is made there. How you live your life, you are not an agitator, stirring up offense and division. You offer peace, because you have it, and to those who receive from you are blessed by it. As a peacemaker, you are a son of God, because the Son of God is the Prince of Peace (12) .    

You are blessed if you are persecuted…wherever the Kingdom of God breaks forth, there is always persecution. Those who have gone before you have been persecuted. You will be persecuted. Jesus was persecuted and you are not greater than your master (13). From slandered reputation to martyrdom, you are persecuted because of “right-ness” in a sinful world. You are persecuted for Jesus, for believing and following. Good news. The kingdom of Heaven is yours. Great is your reward there. Endure, in fact, rejoice and be glad, because in your persecution, if you look up, you will see the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the Father in all his glory (14).

1. Luke 18:13
2. Matthew 9:12
3. Luke 18:9-14
4. Luke 9:51-56
5. Matthew 9:37
6. Matthew 25:31-46
7. Colossians 3:13
8. Matthew 7:1-5
9. Philippians 2:12
10. Psalm 139:23-24
11. John 20:19
12. Isaiah 9:6 
13. John 15:18-21
14. Acts 7:55-56

13 “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.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 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. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

Salt is a preserver. Those who belong to Christ Jesus are the preservation of the kingdom of God in this world, keeping a foothold in conjunction with the work of God that is happening around us. If we lose that preservation, if we are swayed into losing what marks us out as citizens of this kingdom that proclaims and lives the kingdom, we have lost our saltiness and are no good for the preservation of the kingdom. We are then no longer part of the subversiveness of the kingdom. 

Light versus darkness is a reoccurring theme of the Christian Faith. The people in darkness have seen a great light (15). That light is Jesus. We, in turn, are to be a light to those in the darkness, the kind of light that shines ever brightly in a dark and lost world. It is like a shining city, whitewashed and reflecting the sun by day and by it’s fires lit by night. In a dark world, the follower of Jesus shines bright in a reflection of the brightness of Christ himself. This is a light that should not be hidden, and if not, then cannot be hidden. It is to be put on its stand. When it is not hidden, it shines for all to see. The worldwide body of Christ, His Church, bring a collaboration of light that shines bright throughout the whole world. As we are in the light, we are to live as children of the light (16).

The deeds, the acts of everyday life, that come forth from the Christian life are those that bring praise and glory to God. His way is even permeating how we treat one another and what we do for one another. These deeds do not replace the proclamation of the Gospel, but are hand in hand with what the Gospel will do to a person’s life. These good deeds are part of being salt and light. They are part of your light shining. They are in keeping with the command to love your neighbor as yourself (17). We love our neighbor because we have been saved ourselves. These deeds are no-strings-attached outworking of that love. They are the outworking of the Fruit of the Spirit (18) and the Gifts of the Spirit (19). The sharing of the Gospel. The prayer for the sick. The care of the widow and orphan. It is the looking after of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the naked, the prisoner. The outworking of patience and kindness and gentleness, and the Beatitiudes. It is the giving of mercy and forgiveness. All of these things are the good deeds that mark the follower of Christ. These deeds will cause a glorification of God, eyes and hearts turned towards him.

15. Isaiah 9:2
16. Ephesians 5:8
17. Matthew 22:37-40
18. Galatians 5:22-23
19. 1 Corinthians 12:4-11

17 “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. 18 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. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands 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. 20 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.

The Law and the Prophets marked out a people belonging to God. Called forth by him, then shaped and formed by him. The Law was set to establish a properly worshipping and just society, brought out to be separate, marking sacred and secular, the clean and unclean. The Prophets were reminders of the Law, particularly where the people fell in idolatry away from God and injustice toward their neighbor. Jesus, in what he did and what he said, did not abolish the Law and the message of the Prophets, but is the great fulfillment of them. They point towards him. The Law and the Prophets hold firm until all things are accomplished, when all things are made new. In the Transfiguration, Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the Prophets) along with Peter, James and John (the Church), are told by God the Father to listen to Jesus- he is the fulfillment and the one to bring it to completion (20). Jesus brings to completion what the Law could not do on its own and what the Prophets, as sign posts, could not do for the people. These are not set aside. We continue to hold to, and teach, what the Law and the Prophets teach us as they find their fulfillment in Christ. In this, Jesus gets to the heart of the Law and the Prophets. The righteousness of the follower of Christ must surpass those who think they find their salvation in adherence to rules that the Law sets forth, rather than to find their salvation in the one who is the fulfillment of the Law that was set forth and what it means to follow him.

20.  Matthew 17:1-6

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. 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.

23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

25 “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. 26 I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

Jesus here begins what leads to six examples of getting to the heart of the Law and the Prophets. The phrase “You heard it was said…but I say…” is used by Jesus to re-orient the listeners away from the letter of the law to the heart of it. To the listener this discourse will be shocking. Only God himself can in any way change the Law. Here, Jesus, though not really changing it, is challenging the understanding and application of the Law. 

You shall not murder, one of the ten commandments (21). Jesus strips murder down to anger. Jesus puts anger that leads to murder and anger that leads to name calling and labeling in the same boat. “Raca” and “fool” are strong derogatory terms. Judgment to the one who name calls out of anger. In your anger, be in self control and do not sin (22). Taken a step further, to practical terms, your tongue is to be a source of life, not of death (23). Your words are to build up, not tear down. You must not kill someone with your words. 

When you are in efforts to be reconciled to God, check yourself, who are you not reconciled to? Who has something against you? We are to forgive those as we are forgiven. Who has unforgiveness towards you? Can you reconcile that situation? Peacemaking is found in this way of living. If something can be done, let it be done. The kingdom can be found where there is peace between those who have been at odds. These kind of things are of primary importance, as when you do these things you will in turn find an unresisting path to being reconciled with God. 

Even in legal issues, settle the issue quickly as possible. The ability to admit mistakes and be reconciled is of the kingdom also.  Who knows, you may be able to avoid a just penalty. Forgiveness often works this way. In the same way you would seek mercy and forgiveness when one has a case against you, give mercy and forgiveness to the one you have a case against. Are lawsuits unscriptural? No, but when it is possible and capable, reconciliation for many matters is the higher way.       

21. Exodus 20:13 
22. Ephesians 4:26
23. Proverbs 18:21

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 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. 30 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. 31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 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.

Adultery, sexual relations with one other than your spouse, is forbidden in the Ten Commandments (24). Jesus goes beyond the sexual act to the issue of the heart and mind: lust. Lust is to have sexual desire. As anger leads to murder, lust leads to adultery. As anger  unchecked itself is sin, so lust unchecked itself is sin. One must learn, in self-control and goodness, to not allow lust to be in feelings and in the thoughts and imaginations of the mind towards one who is not your spouse. In an ever increasing world of sexual persuasion, guard against what the mind is fed by what it is exposed to. Guard against improper relationships. Not just no adultery, but no want of adultery. Jesus goes on to an extreme example of gouging out your eye or cutting off your hand if either causes you to stumble in sin. Is he really saying to do this? No, but the example is to bring a strong warning to controlling yourself inwardly and outwardly in a world where sexual perversion is rampant. For, as he says, it is better to be without the part of your body that causes you to sin than for your whole being to be thrown into hell. Judgment for sin is real. Jesus then moves from adultery and lust to divorce. Here may be one of the trickier parts of the Sermon. 

The certificate of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1) was given for, and this became used very loosely and wrongly in some circles among the Israelites, what became unpleasing to the man, finding something indecent about his wife. A patriarchal dominated society allowed a man to do away with his wife for most anything, putting her at a disadvantage. Outside of the unfaithfulness of adultery, there are more reasons for divorce in proper but it is not the point here, Jesus put the onus on the man that unmerited divorce meant adultery. Two becoming one, that man should not separate, was not to be taken lightly. As in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, Jesus states in the Sermon that adultery is committed in remarriage when prior divorce is unmerited (25). The onus is put on the man, as unmerited divorce was permitted because their hearts became hard, because in these cases it is mostly the man who is having his way. “(He) causes her…” The woman will carry the stigma. In this way Jesus is critiquing the patriarchal system in place. The husband must love his wife as Christ loves the church (26). If this is the case, unmerited divorce will melt away. 

24. Exodus 20:14
25. Matthew 19:3-8, Mark 10:2-12
26. Ephesians 5:25

33 “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.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

From the topic is divorce, Jesus now turns to the oaths people make, as marriage itself is an oath between two people and to God. In the Old Testament, people are forbade against using the name of the Lord lightly and irreverently, committing to oaths and vows with his name and not keeping them (27). The way of the Kingdom is to be of integrity to your word. Using anything beyond your word to trump up your oath can turn into deceit and manipulation. Letting your “yes be yes” and your “no be no” is to stand on who you are as one who follows Christ. It is a testimony to the faithfulness of who you are. As Christ is faithful to keep his word to us, we are faithful in keeping our word to others. 

27. Exodus 20:7, Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2, Deuteronomy 23:21

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

From our faithfulness of our commitments, now, to how we respond when mistreated. If the Sermon has not been found too difficult to this point, it is in the next of the teachings of the Sermon that many people stumble. To follow Christ is to give up all your rights and take on his way. We must believe his way is the best way even when it it beyond our understanding and the practical ways of a fallen world. We are to love our neighbor. What happens when that neighbor mistreats us? What happens when our neighbor is our enemy? Israel was occupied by Rome. They enemy was right there. Israel had always been bordered by the threat of enemies. The prevailing idea of the Messiah was one of deliverance. The nation of Israel, free and independent. Through that, the name of the Lord would be proclaimed through all the earth. They were in need of a warrior king to set them free. The son of David who was like David. This was the hope. Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, comes to bring freedom but in a different way.  His way. The best way. It is shown in a striking way in how to respond and treat those who mistreat you, those who are your enemies. 

Exodus 21:23-25, “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” This was the Law given way of reprimanding wrongs (28). Show no pity. It was given to stop escalating retaliation. Give back what was given, end there. Jesus continues to strike at the heart of the kingdom. For the first time in the Sermon, he seems to change the Law. No more eye for an eye, but turning the other cheek. No revenge for insult. Someone goes after you in court, go beyond what is legally required. If you are forced to help someone and carry their load, as was the custom of Roman solider to the Israeli citizen, do not show spite but go further than expected. Freely give and do not expect interest. Hard words to take. Are the followers of Christ to be push overs? Are they to be defenseless? Are they to be easily used and manipulated? To all these, no. The better way of seeing this is to look at it this way: the cycle of evil, the using of others and revenge, must be broken. This is the kingdom. This is how Jesus brings freedom and new life. It can only be broken by someone doing for someone what they do not deserve. Meekness shows here. Mercy shows here. Hunger and thirsting for righteousness shows here. Peacemaking shows here. The way of Jesus, the best way, was to die on a cross, forgiving those who crucified him without vengeful retaliation. He is teaching that here. We must first see the world now through this lens. Turning the other cheek to giving freely. What seem to be disadvantages by the way of the fallen world are the ways of a kingdom that will come in fullness and bring its reward with it. How much do we believe in the life to come to live it to its greatest extent now, even if we must turn the other cheek?  

28. Leviticus 24:17-20, Deuteronomy 19:21

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.   

To love your neighbor was found in the teaching of the Law (29). To hate your enemy was a way of life with the assumption that God hated your enemy too. It was accepted to hate the Samaritan and the Roman as it was accepted to hate the Philistine. But Jesus said to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. This is often pulled out of its context to push a morally perfect life, but in its direct context, to be perfect as the Father is perfect is to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. Do this and you are children of your Father in heaven. Peacemakers will be called sons of God. You can pray for those who persecute you when you are reminded that you are blessed when you are persecuted. In direct contrast to what is seemingly taught, for example in the war passages of the Old Testament, God does good to those who are evil (for contrast see the story of the healing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5). The evil have the sun and have the rain. Jesus dies for us while we are yet sinners (30). This is not to say there is no judgment, but mercy always comes first. As a follower of Christ, loving those who love you is only part. Non-believers do the same. The test case of loving your neighbor is loving your enemy. Do this, and here is found the heart of the kingdom. Jesus puts a stamp on how we treat our enemies when asked “who is my neighbor?”, an attempt to justify choosing who to love and who not to love, with the parable of the Good Samaritan (31). It is the enemy of the Israelite, the Samaritan, who is most like God when he helps the one in need, above the religious Israelites who pass by. There is no justifying who can be cut out from your love and the actions thereof. 

29. Leviticus 19:18
30. Romans 5:8  
31. Luke 10:25-37


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