The Sermon on the Mount (Part 1)
The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) is a complex multi-layered message of Jesus. As you read Jesus’ words in these chapters or recall in your mind some of what He had to say, we need to ask ourselves, “Who was Jesus talking to? What are the main points He is making to His audience?”
Is Jesus only talking to the Jewish nation living under the old covenant? Is He saying to His Hebrew brothers, “This is what you think following the Law is? Let me dial it up a notch. Your righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). In fact, you must be perfect like your heavenly Father is perfect (Mathew 5:48). You must …”
Jesus’ audience, if made up of Jewish commoners, would not know what to think. There is no way their outward expression of righteousness could exceed the Pharisees. And being perfect? Not a chance. If Jesus message was directed at the Jews of His day, it should serve as a wake-up call to their need of a Savior. Keeping the Law perfectly, along with the challenge of the greater law such as love your enemies or turn the other cheek that Jesus added, would have been impossible for them to process or keep.
Maybe Jesus was speaking to us, His future followers. Maybe these red-letter words are meant as some sort of a code for us to live by. But this still breeds confusion. Be perfect. Uh? Never go back on your word. Is that possible? If you call your brother a fool, you are guilty enough to go to hell. Ouch. Love your enemy. Cut off your hand if it causes you to sin. Oh wait, that last one can’t be for us. We all know that we are not to cut off our hand or poke out our eye, right? So in the midst of what appears to be some pretty over-the-top statements, who will tell us what does and doesn’t apply?
As is common in Jesus’ teaching, there are layers of truth for us to understand in Matthew chapters 5-7. And this understanding comes to us best when we see the message of Jesus in light of the two covenants; the old and the new.
To those living under the old covenant (the conditions until Jesus went to the cross), the Sermon on the Mount unpacks the failure of the old covenant to produce the righteousness that God requires. “You think you are keeping the commandment against murder, but do you hate your brother? Oops, guilty. You think you are keeping the commandment against adultery, but are you desiring a woman with lustful intentions? Guilty again.”
Matthew chapter 5 is a message of condemnation for the self-righteous; those who thought true righteousness comes by outward obedience to the Law. Christ’s words to them? “Your self-righteous adherence to the Law falls woefully short of what is actually required; perfection (Matthew 5:48).” But let’s leave the old covenant piece for now and look to us, today’s disciples of Jesus.
The Sermon on the Mount is a beautiful foreshadowing of what is to come in the new covenant. It is not a list of platitudes to live by, but a prophetic word of what Christ is going to accomplish on our behalf. The key to the Sermon on the Mount is to see it through the lens of the kingdom of heaven; a kingdom promised to us as a provision of the new covenant. Jesus’ words are describing how life under the old covenant is marked by failure, and how life under the new covenant, life in the kingdom of God, is only possible through the finished work of Christ in our place, not our self-righteous law-abiding effort.
We will explain further next time as we dive into the first section of Matthew chapter 5.