The first, longest, and best-known block of teaching material in Matthew is known as the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is found in Matthew 5-7. Literally thousands of books and articles have been written about it. The Sermon is one of the best-loved sections of the Bible and contains the most well-known teachings of Jesus. Despite the extensive study there is no consensus about the outline of the Sermon. Neither is there agreement about its purpose. It does seem clear that Matthew presented the Sermon as a summary of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God. The strategic placement of the Sermon immediately following Matthew 4:17 and 23-25 as well as its content suggests this. Speculation about the structure and purpose is not as profitable for us as examining the Sermon itself.
Introduction to the Sermon - Matthew 5:1-2
The opening two verses of Matthew 5 are not an introduction in the modern sense of the word. That is, they do not give an initial summary or preview of the content. Rather, these verses provide important insight into Matthew’s understanding of the Sermon’s framework. First, Matthew places Jesus on the mountain to deliver the Sermon. This contrasts with Luke 6:17 where Jesus is said to deliver the Sermon from "a level place." For Matthew, the mountain is a place of divine revelation. It also introduces his concept of Jesus as the new Moses. The comment that Jesus was seated is also important. Sitting was the position for rabbis when they were giving official teaching of the Law. Their seat was called "the seat of Moses." To say that Jesus was seated speaks both of his authority to give genuine interpretation from God and his connection to Moses. Moses received the Law on the mountain by revelation from God. Jesus gave the Sermon on the mountain as revelation from God.
The second important insight from the opening verses appears in the Greek form of the verb taught in verse 2. The verb form shows that Matthew did not regard the Sermon as a single event in Jesus’ life. Rather, it represented the pattern of Jesus’ typical teachings. This is confirmed by careful comparison with Luke’s gospel. Much of the material in Matthew’s Sermon can be found, but it is scattered through several places in Luke. Thus, the Sermon on the Mount is not simply one sermon preached once representing the peak of Jesus’ teaching. Rather, it is the typical preaching of Jesus. These are the kinds of words he taught all the time wherever he went.
The Beatitudes - Matthew 5:3-12
Apart from the Lord’s Prayer the Beatitudes, those verses that begin with blessed, are the most well known and best-loved material in the Sermon. However, these words have been interpreted and applied in very different ways in the history of Christianity. Through much of Christian history the beatitudes have been viewed as giving the demands of the Kingdom of God. This interpretation says, "Blessed are the meek, but if you aren’t meek, you are cursed." This view has often led to understanding the Sermon as an expression of the impossible ideal for believers. Some even claim that its purpose is to drive Christians to despair over their inability to live at the level portrayed in the beatitudes.
It is much more natural to understand the beatitudes as "effective words of grace." This view builds on the Old Testament concept of effective words. The concept of an effective word is that the very act of speaking it begins its fulfillment or enactment. Thus, when Jesus says, blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the very act of his saying it begins a process of actual blessing in the lives of people who do hunger and thirst after righteousness. Obviously, this interpretation sees the beatitudes as good news rather than an impossible demand. Because the first and the eighth beatitudes speak of the kingdom of heaven, these words of blessing are often seen as the good news of the kingdom of God.
Another way of expressing this is to ask, "What is the Kingdom of God like?" The answer according to the beatitudes is that the kingdom is the kind of place where the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, and the pure in heart are blessed. That immediately tells us that the kingdom is very different from the kind of human society to which we are accustomed. We might summarize the recipients of kingdom blessings as the unfortunate people of society and as the spiritually sensitive people. Those who mourn, the meek, and those who are persecuted are not considered fortunate in our society. If we used Luke’s parallel beatitudes (Luke 6:20-21) we could add the poor and the hungry to the list of unfortunates. The fact that Matthew’s beatitudes speak of the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness shows his tendency to cast the matter in spiritual terms. In the time of Jesus unfortunate people were often seen as spiritually sensitive. This view is pervasive enough in Scripture that it represents a real challenge to those of us who enjoy the comfort and security of middle-class society. The beatitudes call us to understand the world from the perspective of those less fortunate than ourselves. May our material prosperity not hinder our spiritual sensitivity.
Another significant insight from grammar is important for understanding the beatitudes. The second clause of most of the beatitudes is expressed in the passive voice (for they will be comforted, for they will be filled). Jews in the time of Jesus often used the passive voice as a way of referring to God without mentioning his name. The fact that God is the one who brings the beatitudes to fulfillment is important. The beatitudes are not the result of natural law; they are words of grace. Blessed are the poor in spirit for God will give them the kingdom. Blessed are those who mourn for God will comfort them. Blessed are the merciful for God will show mercy to them. The beatitudes promise divine grace from start to finish.
It is also important for us to notice the importance placed on persecution in this section of the Sermon. About the final one third of the material we call the beatitudes focuses on the right response to persecution. The only commands that appear in the beatitudes are the commands to rejoice and be glad when we are persecuted for righteousness. Note that there is no blessing for being persecuted because we are hard to get along with or because of our personality. Righteousness is the only value high enough that its persecution is seen as a blessing. Jesus (and Matthew) seems to assume that genuine righteousness will lead to some kind of persecution. Perhaps our lack of persecution is lack of enthusiasm for righteousness.
Salt and Light - Matthew 5:13-16
Verses 13-16 move from the blessings of the kingdom to the responsibilities of the kingdom. Jesus uses two metaphors to describe believers as kingdom people. We are to be the salt and the light of the world. Both metaphors place believers over against the world rather than viewing us as part of the world. This is another New Testament perspective that has largely been lost by the contemporary church. We wanted to be accepted by the world; to be like the world; to be an approved part of the world. Matthew will have none of that. We have a responsibility to the world.
Jesus did not explain his use of the metaphor of salt. We are left to interpret what he meant. In the ancient world salt had at least three major functions. It was a purifying agent; it was a preservative; and it provided taste. Salt was applied to wounds in ancient Palestine, not because those who applied it were sadistic, but because it was the closest thing they had to a disinfectant. Gangrene often set in when wounds were not cleansed with salt. Salt was also a preservative. In the days before refrigeration salt was one of the major ways to preserve meat. The use of salt to provide taste is still one of its major functions in our society.
Jesus’ vision of believers being the salt of the earth is quite significant. Immediately following his words about persecution in the beatitudes he calls on his followers to respond to the persecuting world in purifying, preserving, and tasteful ways. Though Jesus did not see his followers being accepted by the world or wanting to be part of the world, neither did he see us rejecting the world. Our calling is to make the world a better place to live. That will only happen as the world becomes a part of the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ words about being the light of the world are similar. The metaphor of believers as light assumes that the world is dark or in darkness. Yet the call to be light is not a rejection of the dark world. It is a command to shed light in the darkness, to bring hope to the hopeless, and to give correction to the wrong. This call to ministry in and for the world is not to become the occasion of self-congratulations on our part. The conclusion of this section is that when we are salt and light the result is to be glory given to God rather than praise given to us. For that reason it is the light metaphor rather than the salt metaphor that is mentioned in verse 16. Believers are to be light pointing the way to God. Whenever the attention falls on us or we applaud other believers we are in danger of missing the role that God has called us to fill.
The Place of the Law - Matthew 5:17-20
One of the questions that occupied much of Matthew’s attention and has been a problem throughout Christian history is the relationship between Christ and the Old Testament, especially the Old Testament Law. Matthew is quite clear about the general answer to that question. He (and he alone among the four gospel writers) notes that Jesus did not come to abolish the law or the prophets. . . but to fulfill the law. This statement of Jesus stands as a barrier and a challenge to those who would like to completely cut off Christianity from its Jewish roots and Old Testament background.
How the Law is fulfilled in Jesus is not explained directly in Matthew, but verses 21-48 seem to illustrate that fulfillment. However, lest we spiritualize this fulfillment too much Jesus states that not not one jot or one tittle will pass from the law before the whole purpose of the Law is fulfilled.
The "jot" was the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, yodh. It resembles an apostrophe mark. The "tittle" or hook was the smallest mark distinguishing one Hebrew letter from another. This strong affirmation of the Law tells us that we are not free to ignore the Old Testament or the Old Testament Law. Paul’s statement in Romans 6:14 that "we are not under Law but under grace" must be understood in conjunction with Jesus’ statement that he came to fulfill the Law.
Verse 20 culminates Jesus’ treatment of his relationship to the Law. He states that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. That is, unless a believer’s righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees that person has not and will not participate in the kingdom of God. It is especially important here to note that Matthew’s phrase, kingdom of heaven," does not mean heaven. It means the kingdom of God or the sovereign rule of God. It is to be God’s kingdom on earth as much as it is in heaven. Failure to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees will mean failure to experience the kingdom life now as described in the beatitudes. What Jesus meant by exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is not explicitly defined. However, the following verses illustrate a life of living by the purpose and principles of the Law rather than by only observing the external requirements. As long as we regard the Law as a list of requirements verse 20 will lead us to legalism. When we understand the Law to be a window into our hearts God has a chance to speak the gospel to us in this section of Matthew.
The Great Antitheses - Matthew 5:21-48
Following Jesus’ discussion of his relationship to the Old Testament Law Matthew presents six subjects illustrating Jesus’ teaching. This section is often called the great antitheses because of the common literary structure introducing each subject. Six times in verses 21-48 we find this pattern.
The reinterpretation by Jesus then illustrates what it means for him to fulfill the Law and what it means for our righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. The general pattern of Jesus’ teaching in the great antitheses is to move beyond the letter of the Law to the spirit. He drives to the original intention of the Law in the mind of God. In this sense Christ restores the Law to its God-intended purpose. For this reason we need to give careful attention to the way Jesus works with the Law in these verses.
The first subject that Jesus addresses is anger. The portion of Old Testament Law that he quotes is the prohibition of murder. However, Jesus proclaims the same punishment for a person who is angry with his brother or sister. The King James Version spoke of being angry with one’s brother "without a cause." However, the oldest and best manuscripts of the New Testament do not contain these words. It is fairly clear that they were added by a scribe who wished to justify his own anger with certain people.
Jesus’ point is difficult for most of us to understand let alone accept. The heart issue in murder is much more than just the death of another individual. It begins with an attitude that disregards the value of that other person, making his or her life of no importance. Likewise anger disregards the value of another person. It is important for us to recognize that Jesus was not speaking of natural angry reactions that we all have when our sense of space and worth is violated. What Jesus was dealing with was the accepting, nurturing, and continuing of anger against another person after our momentary reaction. When we value others as much as we value ourselves we will find explanations for their invasions of our space and dignity in the same way we find explanations for our own behavior that inadvertently hurts other people.
Verses 23-24 show how important this issue is. Jesus places the resolution of our human conflicts above our worship of God. That is, worship of God is meaningless as long as we live with broken human relationships. Persons matter so much to God that he requires that we mend our relationships with other people before bringing our gifts to him.
Verses 27-30 deal with the issue of adultery. Here we find the clearest example of the way Jesus moves to the heart purpose of the Old Testament commandment. The Old Testament quotation was of the seventh commandment prohibiting adultery. Jesus extended the application of the commandment past bed-hopping. To look at another person in order to lust after them is to commit adultery in one’s heart. Even in the Old Testament adultery was understood to be much more than the violation of another man’s property rights over his wife. Idolatry and the worship of Baal was often described as adultery by the Old Testament prophets. The underlying assumption is that marriage was to be a covenant relationship like that between God and Israel. Such covenanting calls for mutual love, fidelity, and valuing.
Adultery is the violation of covenant love, covenant faithfulness, and covenant valuing. So is lust and so are any of the variety of pornographic entertainments available now (and then). To desire (sexually or otherwise) someone other than your covenant partner violates the mutual valuing implied by the covenant itself. Pornography undermines covenant mutuality. Our culture has so perverted human sexuality into the self-indulgent pursuit of orgasm that hardly a trace of the biblical view remains. Biblical sexuality is intensely personal. Genesis 2 portrays sexuality as the means by which our humanity in the image of God is created. Sexual union creates a mutual valuing of the two partners that is violated by every sexual perversion or sin. Though research and human experience deny it our popular culture still promotes the delusion that sexuality is a genital activity rather than the heart of personal relationship. We cannot have it both ways and the sooner the church declares that reality, the better off we will be.
The third issue Jesus addressed in the great antitheses was divorce. The Old Testament quotation is from Deuteronomy 24:1, which was part of the Old Testament divorce regulations. The scenario described in Deuteronomy 24:1 is that of a wife who does not find favor from her husband because of something objectionable about her. The rabbis of Jesus’ time discussed intensely what "objectionable" things might be sufficient cause for a divorce. Some of the suggestions included such trivial matters as being a poor cook or not being as physically attractive as another woman the husband might meet.
Here in Matthew 5 Jesus clearly states that adultery is the only thing sufficiently objectionable so that a divorce might be permitted. Matthew 19 will contain a fuller treatment of the question of marriage and divorce. However, we should note here that Jesus does not command divorce in the case of adultery. He also states that a man who divorces his wife for any reason other than adultery is responsible for placing his wife in a position where adultery may be her only recourse. In an astounding move beyond the Old Testament Jesus made adultery an issue for which both men and women are responsible rather than it simply being a woman’s problem.
The fourth main subject in this section is that of oaths. This is difficult for most modern believers to understand for two reasons. First, we tend to take Scriptural teaching on oaths as a prohibition of any profane use of God’s name. In the biblical context oaths referred to the use of God’s name to affirm the truthfulness of what one had said. It did not include other profanity or vulgar language. The second issue we fail to understand is the pattern of deceitfulness prevalent in Jewish society at Jesus’ time. At least in some circles habits had developed in which people felt free not to tell the truth unless they swore by God’s name that they were telling the truth. Judaism had several mechanisms by which they could refer to God without actually mentioning his name. Use of the passive voice was one of those mechanisms. Mention of heaven or God’s throne was another. Jesus’ point here in Matthew 5:33-37 is that kingdom people’s word is reliable. Yes means yes, no means no, and no oaths should be necessary to convince others of the integrity of our words. Though our culture has different ways of justifying lying the principle is still true for believers today. There should never be a question of the integrity of our words.
Verses 38-42 deal with the subject of retaliation. Jesus quotes a common Old Testament dictum, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This saying can be found in Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; and Deuteronomy 19:21. Though Christian history has normally taken these words to speak of the right for revenge, in their original context they had a very different thrust. In a world in which the death of one demanded vengeance killing of several in response the eye for eye teaching was a restriction of retaliation. Jesus extends that limitation of retaliation by urging our generous and gracious response to everyone who hurts us or places some demand upon us. This leads very naturally to the final antithesis. Instead of loving our family and friends and hating our enemies Christ calls on us to also love our enemies. Our example in this is God himself who demonstrates equal love to saints and sinners alike. Both receive the blessings of sunshine and rain indiscriminately. Kingdom people likewise will love indiscriminately. That love without expecting a return is the meaning of being perfect like our heavenly Father is perfect.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.
First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 5:1-48. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2. Is there a spiritual truth in Matthew 5 that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you identify the areas of your life that need to change for you to live like a genuine "kingdom person."
Second Day: Read Matthew 6:1-34. Now focus on Matthew 6:1-18.
1. What pattern of words is repeated in verses 2-4, 5-6, and 16-18? Jot down the pattern and explain the significance you see in it.
2. How do verses 2-18 illustrate the teaching of verse 1? From your perspective, what is the worst thing about being religious in public in order to be seen? Is that "worst thing" a concern mentioned in these verses?
3. What value or reward comes from the public display of piety? What reward or value comes from the private practice of piety? Which do you prefer? Why?
Third Day: Read Matthew 6:1-18. Focus in on Matthew 6:5-15.
1. Compare the version of the Lord’s Prayer here in Matthew 6:9-13 with that found in Luke 11:2-4. Note both similarities and differences. What significance do the differences in Matthew have for you?
2. How important does forgiveness seem to be according to these focus verses? Is it "fair" of Jesus to demand this level of forgiveness? Why or why not? Is it realistic? Why or why not?
3. Summarize what these verses teach you about prayer and a life of prayer. What areas of this teaching does the Holy Spirit identify as areas in which you need growth and improvement? How will you respond?
Fourth Day: Read Matthew 6:1-34. Focus your attention on Matthew 6:19-34.
1. In light of the whole context of verses 19-34 what treasures do you think Jesus may have had in mind in his comments found in verses 19-21? Does your answer fit with verse 21? How?
2. Can you illustrate the truthfulness of Jesus’ saying in verse 24 that no one can serve two masters? What happens when one tries to divide loyalties? How is that related to the Old Testament prohibition of idolatry? What "masters" become the "idols" of our lives?
3. What areas of life do you struggle with in light of Jesus’ command to seek the kingdom first of all? How would your life be different if you really did seek God’s kingdom first and foremost in your life?
Fifth Day: Read Matthew 6:19-7:14. Now focus in on Matthew 7:1-6.
1. Do you think Matthew 7:1-6 flows naturally out of Matthew 6:19-34 or is Matthew 7 beginning a whole new subject matter? Explain your answer.
2. Is Jesus’ prohibition of judging others realistic? Is it appropriate? How can we understand it so that it will be both realistic and appropriate? If there are times to "judge" another, how does that fit with these verses?
3. Attempt your own explanation of verse 6. What do you think Jesus is referring to when he speaks of "that which is holy?" What pearls of yours would he advise you to keep from the swine? Why?
Sixth Day: Read Matthew 7:1-14. Now focus on Matthew 7:7-14.
1. How does the teaching on prayer found here in verses 7-8 compare with the teaching found in Matthew 6:5-15? What explanation would you give for the differences in the teaching found in these two sections?
2. What are the "good things" that Matthew envisions Jesus giving to people according to verse 11? Compare this section with Luke 11:9-13. What significant differences do you find? How do they help you answer the question of what Matthew considered the "good things?"
3. Verse 12 is often called the Golden Rule. Ask the Lord to identify some areas in your life where application of the Golden Rule would cause you to respond, act, or think differently. What difference would it make in your life to really live by the Golden Rule?