The Sermon on the Mount is NOT a Guide to Christian Living

Understanding the Red Letters   Part 27

(6 minute read)

Matthew chapters 5 through 7 is one of the most preached-through passages in the gospels.  In a variety of church settings, I often find myself in a sermon series from the Sermon on the Mount.  And let me say at the outset, as politely as I can, this section of the gospels is NOT a guide to living the Christian life.  So how are we to understand the Sermon on the Mount?  What is Jesus teaching in these verses?

Please follow closely as I seek to give a concise but thorough summary of the Sermon on the Mount in this short space.  Here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew chapters 5 through 7, Jesus is teaching at least three intertwined messages to His Jewish audience.  Jesus is preaching old covenant Law, Jesus is preaching Law 2.0 (an updated version of the Law), and last, Jesus is giving us a glimpse of life under the new covenant.  What makes these chapters confusing is that there is no set order as to when Jesus is speaking which of these three emphases.  We can only understand it properly when we look back through the lens of the new covenant.  And when we do that, we see that not everything in this sermon applies to believers today.  Let me give you some examples.

Let’s start with Law and old covenant.  We are all familiar with the Golden Rule.  “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).  Remember, “the Law and the Prophets” is used by Jesus several times in the gospels to refer to the old covenant.  The Golden Rule is an old covenant concept.

Or how about Matthew 6:14, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”?  This message is clearly old covenant.  Forgiving others in order to be forgiven by God was a transactional arrangement with God, an arrangement that ended at the cross.  It ended at the end of the old covenant.  This verse is the exact opposite of the promise of our complete forgiveness in Christ given to us under the new covenant, under our new arrangement with God.  After the cross, we are to forgive others – not as a prerequisite for God to forgive us – but because we have already been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13).

The old covenant has ended (Hebrews 8:13) for you and I.  The old covenant messages in the Sermon on the Mount do not apply to new covenant believers.

Next, let’s look at Law 2.0.  Jesus told the gathered crowd, “Unless your righteousness SURPASSES that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).  Every Jew in the audience that day would have thought to themselves, “It is impossible to out-righteous the scribes and Pharisees.  They are the poster children for righteousness according to the Law.”  So how is this done?  Is there a higher Law you can keep, say Law 2.0?  Jesus then launches in to what Law 2.0 looks like.

“You think you are keeping the Law if you do not commit adultery.  But I say that if you look at a woman with lust in your heart, you are already guilty of adultery” (Matthew 5:27-28).  Did Jesus just raise the standard for “guilty of adultery”?  Or, “If you are angry at your brother and call him a fool, you deserve to go to hell” (Matthew 5:22).  That is an awfully severe punishment for anger.  Or, “The only way to really keep from sinning is to pluck out your eye and cut off your hand” (Matthew 5:29-30).  Huh?  Do you see where this is going?

In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus starts several sections with, “You have heard that it was said …” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43).  Then Jesus states some part of the Law that they would have been familiar with.  He follows this with “But I say to you …”  and turns each of these commands up a notch with an even harder command to follow.

This is Law 2.0.  This is perfection.  Jesus summarizes this section with, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  I think the whole point of Matthew chapter 5 is, “Perfection is required to be right with God.  Knowing that you cannot live the required perfect life should lead you to your need for a Savior.”

Of course, at this early stage of Jesus’ ministry, no one would have known that the Savior is Him!  No one would have known that Jesus came to rescue them and us from the perfection requirement.  These chapters are long before Jesus explained to the crowds that salvation and eternal life would come through Him.  Looking back, we can see that our righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees, our perfection, our justification will all come to us through Jesus’ death in our place.  Law 2.0 has nothing for us as new covenant believers.

But there are also some glimpses of our new covenant life in this sermon.  I believe that the beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-12 are prophetic, speaking about the future us.  These verses are not character qualities to aspire to.  They are describing who you will be under the new covenant.  For example, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8).  When you believe the gospel, Jesus will give you a new pure heart.  This is forward looking.  This is not, “You need to constantly work at keeping your heart pure.”  No, your pure heart will be a one-time gift of grace.  And with your pure heart, you will see God and be blessed.

Or how about, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6)?  We often hear this preached that we need to keep a high level of hunger and thirst for righteousness at all times.  I have even heard a radio preacher question our salvation if we do not have an adequate hunger for righteousness.  This completely flips the promise around and puts the shame on us if we are not hungry enough.  How much hunger is enough?

At the risk of sounding crass, my “hunger and thirst” is now zero.  It has been completely satisfied in Jesus.  “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst’ ” (John 6:35).  Did you hear the “never”?  Jesus completely satisfies our hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Matthew 5:6 is a forward-looking promise that will be fulfilled in all future believers under the gift of the new covenant.

In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus assures us that the same God of the old covenant will be our provider under the new.  We can trust God for our needs.  Our focus will move away from money and things and possessions and onto His kingdom (Matthew 6:33) as we enter into our new life.  Again, no one had a clue at this point what Jesus’ kingdom would involve.  Only in looking back can we see our place in the kingdom as a beloved and cared for child of God.

Finally, check out this preview of the new covenant, “Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he?  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:9-11).

The Old Testament included a deadly run-in with snakes (Numbers 21).  The old covenant was written on tablets of stone (Exodus 24:12), stones that Paul called a ministry of death (II Corinthians 3:7).  By contrast, the new covenant will be good gifts of bread and fish.  Jesus is the promised Bread of Life (John 6:35); a gift to us who believe the gospel.  And remember the ichthys, the fish symbol that identified the early Christians?  I don’t think it is an accident that Jesus fed a crowd of 5000 with bread and fish.  Bread and fish would become symbols of the new covenant.

Of course, no one in the Sermon on the Mount crowd would have had the slightest idea about what all this meant and what was coming.  Jesus’ ministry that followed was brand new and completely unexpected.  We see these things more clearly now because we are looking backward at Jesus’ words.  We have the rest of Scripture to explain the fuller picture to us, and to see where the Sermon on the Mount fits into the two covenants.

The Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew chapters 5 through 7 is NOT a “Christian Manifesto” as we have been taught.  Looking back through the lens of the rest of the gospel, we see these chapters as Jesus preaching old covenant Law, Jesus preaching Law 2.0, and Jesus giving us a glimpse of life under the coming new covenant.  It is NOT a prescription for living the Christian life.  And when we teach that it is, we place a heavy yoke of guilt, shame, and condemnation on believers who struggle with the perfection commands of Law 2.0.

Jesus became our perfection.  We are fully justified, not by living up to the commands of the Law or Law 2.0.  We are justified wholly and fully by Jesus’ death in our place on the cross and by our belief that He did this for us; by believing the gospel message of Jesus Christ.  And our Christian walk is energized by the indwelling Christ living His life through us, NOT by keeping to the letter of the Law, a letter emphasized in various ways and in various parts of the Sermon on the Mount.  We live, move, and walk under a new covenant.  The Sermon on the Mount is NOT a Guide to Christian Living.

Now ironically, the gospels do contain a multi-chapter message from Jesus that IS a Christian manifesto.  We have a message in the red letters that is 100% new covenant.  We have a message that describes what life under the new covenant will look like.  For some reason, it does not seem to be as popular of a preaching topic.  Where can we turn for an incredible life-affirming message of joy and freedom from the mouth of Jesus?  We will talk about it next time.

One thought on “The Sermon on the Mount is NOT a Guide to Christian Living”

  1. Recently I received a prayer request for unbelieving friends who are “starving but not hungry”. The description, aligning with Mt. 5:6, has stuck with me.

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