Whenever there is an election in a country different candidates make various promises and policies which they are promise to implement when in power. The promises and policies are issued in a booklet called a manifesto. Often these promises are broken. If we looked for a modern term to describe the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount it would be the manifesto of Jesus ‘his public declaration of his policy in the kingdom of God’ (Sinclair Ferguson). Unlike the promises of politicians and leaders over us the words of Jesus are true, constant and dependable. I want to spend the next four morning sessions at this conference looking at what Jesus says in the first part of this sermon. This is not going to be a comfortable part of the bible to preach from or to listen to as we will be confronted by Jesus’ standard for our lives, and for all his people. Matthew Chapter 5 – 7 is known as the Sermon on the Mount and is among the most famous of the sermons which Jesus ever delivered. This ‘sermon is one address given at a particular time, in a particular place to a particular people’ (Charles Price). Let’s not think of it as a collection of various sayings of Jesus in the same way we would collect the various poets or writers. ‘This is the most concentrated record of Jesus’ teachings recorded anywhere in the New Testament (Charles Price). That is not to say that Jesus didn’t teach the same truths in different places to different gatherings. There is no doubt that he did repeat his message in different locations. If we want to find out how Jesus wants his people to live then we will learn many lessons in this sermon. If we want to find out what Jesus says about that longing we all have for happiness we will see it in this sermon.
The Kingdom Message
There are a couple of issues that we need to be aware of prior to examining Jesus’ teaching. The first is that Jesus speaks of this new lifestyle in the context of this message about the kingdom of God. Matthew has recorded for us that when Jesus began to preach he delivered a specific message Matthew 4v17, a message about the kingdom of heaven, and a message repeated around the Galilee region Ch4v23. This theme is returned to at the start of the Sermon on the Mount - look at v3 and again in v10. What do we mean when we speak of the kingdom of heaven? Evidently we mean the same as the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ for the two phrases are used interchangeably in Luke 6v20 and Matthew 5v3. Is this kingdom a place like the United Kingdom? No. It is describing the rule that God has in the hearts of his people. This kingdom rule was promised in the OT (Micah 4v7 and Isa 52v7) was inaugurated with the coming of Jesus. He now reigns within the heart of every true Christian, reigns in the church, and his reign will be finally fulfilled at the end of the world. This sermon describes what human life and human community look like now (not at Jesus’ return) when they come under the gracious rule of God and the reign of God (John Stott). Jesus is preaching about the kingdom of heaven and this sermon is about how we live under his rule – living a kingdom life in a fallen world (Sinclar Ferguson) and not an ideal life in an ideal world. So the sermon is tied to Jesus’ mission and his message.
This kingdom life is important as it fits with the overall message of the bible where God’s people, his children in the OT and the NT live in such a way that marks us as his people. Our conduct shows that we belong to God. Whether it was Abel’s sacrifice, Noah’s perseverance, Abraham’s faith in the seemingly impossible circumstances, through to Joseph realising God’s providence the people of God lived different lives because they were in a relationship with God. The aim of gospel preaching is to rescue people from the power of Satan to God, from the kingdom of darkness to light. In other words life will be so different when we live under the rule of King Jesus. Let me give two examples. In Ephesians Ch4 we are shown something of the practical ways that the teaching of Ch1-3 is seen in born-again lives. The thief will steal no more v17, instead he will work. There is a clear and practical impact of God’s power in conversion. In other words there is a new way of living through Christ. When Paul writes in Phil 1v27 he urges us to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. In other words there is a right way to live and a wrong way. The right way is the kingdom way. It is the kingdom living which Jesus speaks about in the Sermon on the Mount. This is the message for our lives as preachers and the message we preach to our congregations. If there is no outward change in our lives by loving Christ something is wrong.
The Relevant message
Secondly we notice that this was a message spoken to his people, his disciples. V1 tells us that while crowds were present it was to the disciples that he addressed these words. Does that mean these words have no relevance for those who don’t follow Jesus? This sermon makes it clear that despite our best efforts, not matter diligent or how noble we cannot provide a way to heaven. We need the Jesus who lived out this sermon if we are to know eternal life. This sermon, with it’s at time seemingly impossible standards, direct us to the Lord Jesus Christ who lived our perfectly the teaching of this sermon. In this way it is similar to when we preach the Ten Commandments. The end point for each command is Jesus, the one who kept them perfectly. This sermon takes us to Jesus so as an evangelistic tool it is essential. If those of us in here who know Jesus as Saviour lived out this sermon can you imagine the impact that would have on friends and family? People would be desperate to know the secret of our lives. Why do we speak and act, pray and give, love and shine in the way we do? “It is because of Jesus” we answer “Let me tell you about him”. What an impact this sermon would have. With these two issues in mind let’s notice what Jesus says about happiness in these opening verses of the sermon.
The Happy message
We mention happiness because that is the literal translation of the work ‘makarios’ – means blessed, or God-favoured. ‘Our society has tended to think of happiness as nice feelings based on good circumstances, in a superficial way’ Charles Price. That is not the type of happiness that this term speaks of. It is rather a sense of well-bring and contentment that may override the most horrendous circumstances. It is similar to Paul writing to the congregation in Philippi when he says ‘rejoice, I tell you again rejoice’. He meant he had a joy that was above circumstances – after all he was writing from prison and he could rejoice. We all want joy that lasts. The issue is where we find this kind of happiness. Our world has devised many ways to try and gain happiness but none of them last. Jesus says if you want to know real happiness and blessing then this is the way. How would Jesus know? ‘Nobody knows us better than our Creator how we may become truly human and happy beings. He made us. He knows how we work best’ (John Stott). Jesus speaks of the type of person who is truly blessed. He speaks of the type of person who is to be congratulated. The ‘ingredients’ Jesus gives for happiness are opposites to the ‘ingredients’ this world offers. The world offers happiness in riches, one of the reasons that millions take part in the Lottery & gambling each week. Jesus offers poverty. Our world ignores death with its focus on youth, our looks & appearance etc where Jesus offers mourning. The world despises those thought of as weak, Jesus offers meekness to us. The list goes on until Jesus offers us persecution while the world offers plaudits, popularity and prominence.
To leave the contrast there would be misleading however. When Jesus speaks of poverty it is not physical but spiritual. When he speaks of mourning it is not physical but spiritual and so on. The major difference in the list is that Jesus is not speaking of qualities in the physical realm (where most look for happiness) but in the realm of the spiritual. The myth of our day is that we can find happiness in physical desires, comforts and appetites. The reality is that we can have all that the world has to offer physically and still be desperately unhappy and discontent. We need our souls to be at rest and know true happiness or we can never be truly blessed. It is our souls which ask the deep questions of life: where did I come from? Where am I going? What is the meaning of life? Jesus teaches here that happiness is found when our spiritual needs are met, and that can only be done through him. You will remember the famous prayer of Augustine ‘you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’ Charles Price. Jesus begins this sermon on kingdom living by showing it is those whose souls have found happiness and blessing in God.
The eight qualities Jesus lists in v3-12 constitute the responsibilities, and the privileges, of being a citizen of God’s kingdom. This is what the enjoyment of God’s rule means. blessing promised (as an unearned free gift) is the gloriously comprehensive blessing of God’s rule, tasted now and consummated later, including the inheritance of both earth and heaven, comfort, satisfaction and mercy, the vision and the sonship of God. “Jesus speaks of blessing which knows God’s approval. There is no higher blessing that to be approved by God” (Don Carson). If you want to know what qualities please God today we find it in these verses. We will look in turn at each of the statements of Jesus, known as beatitudes.
V3 Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.
The words ‘in spirit’ transform the term poverty from being a lack of money or good to a spiritual quality. The Old Testament helps teach us what the person who is poor in spirit is like. Think of the man in Ps 34v6. “The ‘poor man’ in the Old Testament is one who is both afflicted and unable to save himself, and who therefore looks to God for salvation, while recognizing that he has no claim upon him. Thus, to be ‘poor in spirit’ is to acknowledge our spiritual poverty and taking it a step further acknowledging our spiritual bankruptcy, before God” (John Stott). No-one can be a Christian without this spirit. It is the spirit of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Having left home self- assured, proud and it was in humility of spirit, emptied of pride, that he came home empty-handed. Poverty of spirit sees our only hope in the Lord. We are bankrupt, debtors in his court. We see this also illustrated in Paul’s experience. He does not say everything about him is bad (Phil 3v4-6), just like not all our gifts or abilities are bad, but apart from the presence of Christ all that Paul is good for will fade. Facing this fact by acknowledging our own poverty of spirit is the first step to happiness. There is good reason why this is stated at the start of the sermon. We must come to him and acknowledge our emptiness and our need of him (Don Carson). No-one can be a Christian without this spirit (Sinclair Ferguson).
Those who are not followers of Jesus today need to see their inability to save themselves, to pay their debts to God, and their need to cry to him for mercy. There is no kingdom life either now or eternally without the recognition of our spiritual poverty and our need of Christ. It directly challenges our impression of our standing before God. It eliminates any assessment that compares us to others for here we are exposed, standing before God. Recognising this is the first step to happiness, to God’s approval. The blessing promised to the poor in spirit is the greatest gift imaginable - the kingdom of heaven. We think of poverty as something to be among the worst possible conditions yet spiritually poverty it is among the healthiest. What is empty will be filled. It is a position of privilege.
V4 Blessed as those who mourn for they will be comforted.
This is the logical response from seeing our poverty of spirit. Just as poverty of spirit is not speaking about man’s pockets, so this is speaking of spiritual matters and specifically mourning over sin. It is not the sorrow of bereavement to which Christ refers, but the sorrow of repentance. It is one thing to be spiritually poor and acknowledge it; it is another to grieve and to mourn over it. Or, in more theological language, confession is one thing, contrition is another (John Stott). The Christian does not ignore sin, excuse his sin, or belittle it. Facing up to the reality of our sin causes us to mourn over our condition and that mourning is called repentance. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually morose, morbid or forever weepy. It certainly gives no justification for self-pity. This is not the same as a heavy depressive spirit. You can have a depressive personality and not be mourning over sin. What makes a believer mourn over sin? The sight of God. What gives a mourning sinner comfort? The sight of God. Was Ezra mistaken to pray and make confession ‘weeping and casting himself down before the house of God’? Ezr. 10:1. Was Paul wrong to groan, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ Romans Ch7v24. No. Paul knew that the closer you are to the light of God (1 John 1v5 and John Ch9v5 Jesus ‘I am the light of the world’ the more you are stuck by the illuminated holiness of God and the filth of our sin. The wonder is that we are in God’s family. Such mourners, who bewail their own sinfulness, will be comforted by the only comfort which can relieve their distress, namely the free forgiveness of God (John Stott). There is no comfort or joy that can compare with what God gives to those who mourn. The joy that flows from grasping hold of the truth that Jesus came to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1v21). This comfort surpasses all else in this world, and looks to the ultimate comfort of wiping away all tears of those who once mourned in heaven, Rev 21v4. Parents wipe away the tears of a crying child to comfort them. God will one day give us the supreme comfort in his presence forever.
V5 Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
This is one of the more difficult qualities to explain. Again we see the bible giving us an example of meekness. Moses was the meekest man in the world Num 12v3. Meekness was not natural to him. He was self-sufficient, self-willed and impatient. Over a period of forty years he was transformed into a patient, submissive and meek man. It was a quality that Jesus possessed and one that his people need to copy (Matt 11v28,9). When confronted with difficulties in Corinth Paul didn’t respond with a show of strength but (2 Cor 10v1) by the meekness and gentleness of Christ. This is not lack of backbone. It is a humble strength of one who has abdicated his rights in order to submit to the Lord and be gentle with sinners. Dr Lloyd-Jones sums it up admirably: ‘Meekness is essentially a true view of oneself, expressing itself in attitude and conduct with respect to others ,,, the man who is truly meek is the one who is truly amazed that God and man can think of him as well as they do and treat him as well as they do.’ This makes him gentle, humble, sensitive, patient in all his dealings with others. What do the meek receive? They inherit the earth. They find out what life on earth is really all about. With our lives in submission to God and his ways, we learn at that point life makes sense. It gives understanding to the issues of life. There is a contentment knowing God’s control and purposes.
To recap let’s ask what have we been doing? We have been submitting ourselves to Jesus’ teaching about his people as he describes his subjects, in a number of ways: poor in spirit (a sense of need, recognising they are spiritually bankrupt in God’s sight and that we have no claim on God), mourning (genuine grief and sorrow over sin they come to God for comfort) and meek (allowing our spiritual poverty (admitted and bewailed) to condition our behaviour to others as well as to God (John Stott). This meekness is the humble strength of one who has abdicated his rights in order to submit to the Lord and be gentle with sinners). It is not that the people of God sometimes possess this quality or that. Rather all these qualities are to be found in God’s people all of the time. To this list of ingredients for a happy, God-favoured life (blessing) Jesus adds more ingredients.
V6 Blessed are they who hunger & thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.
Rather than be paralysed by our sense of need God intends for his people to turn away from ourselves and turn towards him. Jesus wants our hearts not be dominated by self but a heart that reaches out for God and to others (Sinclair Ferguson). To show the way to true happiness Jesus speaks about spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst. Just as the poverty in v3 is not physical, and the mourning in v4 is not physical so the hunger & thirst mentioned here is not physical but spiritual. That does not mean it is of less importance given it is a spiritual issue. Jesus says this hunger and this thirst is just as important as food and drink. And just as we do not view our staple diet of food and water as a luxury or something we can take or leave, so this longing for filling is not a luxury or non-essential. It is vital. What Jesus says is this: are you so desperate for what he offers as a starving man wants food or a parched man wants water? It is only when you are really desperate to be filled that you will turn to me and away from your own plans (JM Boice). There is longing, desperation, a craving here in the person Jesus describes. What is being intensely longed for as a means of blessing and happiness? It is not experiences, feelings and not knowledge but righteousness.
This righteousness is not a heartless obeying of rules and regulations. This righteousness touches a number of areas. Righteousness in the Bible has at least three aspects: legal, moral and social.
Legal righteousness is justification, a right relationship with God. Our status before God has changed from being sinners to being righteous. This change in our status came because of the change in the status of Jesus Christ on the cross. 2 Cor 5v21 tells us that the default position of Jesus was to be ‘without sin’ yet on the cross be ‘became sin’. Our default position is to be full of ‘sin’ yet through the work of the cross we become and receive ‘righteousness’. ‘This it the very centre of the gospel message. We lack righteousness, but God provides it for us (Sinclair Ferguson).
Moral righteousness is that righteousness of character and conduct which pleases God. Jesus goes on after the beatitudes to contrast this Christian righteousness with pharisaic righteousness (v20). The latter was an external conformity to rules; the former is an inner righteousness of heart, mind and motive. As Saviour, Jesus not only brings pardon, but he works in us to make us live in our right relationship with God. We cannot take Christ’s gift (forgiveness) but neglect his demands (right living). Right living is what we hunger and thirst for, as well as forgiveness. If we do not then our supposed longing for a right relationship with God is proved false. Hungers and thirsts for conformity to God’s will. His delight is for the word of God for where else is God’s will, to which he hungers to be conformed, so clearly set forth? He wants to become righteous not simply because he fears God but because righteousness has become for him the most eminently desirable thing in the world (Don Carson). For this we should hunger and thirst.
Thirdly righteousness in the bible is more than a private and personal affair; it includes social righteousness as well, dealing with the needs of the world around us. That is why we are taught later to prayer that ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ Ch6v10. Jesus will return to this theme of righteousness again and again in this sermon because it is that important. In fact, he says it is so important that we are to ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ Ch6v33. Often it is other things we seek for: blessing, encouragement, experiences, feelings, strength when all the while we are seeking for the wrong gift. Where is our heart today? Are we hungry and thirsty for God today?
Jesus says all who seek for righteousness will be filled. There will be a satisfaction, not with ourselves but in Christ, in Him. As one Scottish pastor of many years ago said of Jesus “Less would not satisfy, more is not required”. Our satisfaction is not in our performance of rules or regulations but in the righteousness of Jesus Christ which he now shares with us (Charles Price). Like all the qualities included in the beatitudes, hunger and thirst are perpetual characteristics of the disciples of Jesus, as perpetual as poverty of spirit, meekness and mourning. Not till we reach heaven will we ‘hunger no more, neither thirst any more’, for only then will Christ our Shepherd lead us ‘to springs of living water’.
V7 Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.
The right way to live, righteous living, is built upon here with Jesus speaking of mercy. Those who have received mercy from God are duty bound to show mercy to others. Mercy is acting to relieve the consequences of sin in the lives of others. It differs from grace in that mercy deals with the results of sin: pain, misery and distress while grace deals with the sin itself (Lenski). Mercy extends relief; grace extends pardon. Mercy cures, heals, helps; grace cleanses and reinstates. We need to be clear that this word does not mean we receive mercy only if we are merciful, as if what we have received from God has been earned. Just as Jesus will say later of forgiveness that we forgive because we have been forgiven, here we show mercy because we have been shown mercy. If there is no evidence of mercy or forgiveness there are question marks whether we ourselves have been forgiven or truly experienced God’s mercy. Being merciful is the natural result of receiving Christ and experiencing the grace of God. If we are not merciful we cannot have received Christ’s mercy. Think of the parable in Matt 18v21-35. Having received mercy none was shown to others. That is not kingdom living.
Think of the mercy of Christ towards us. When he encountered broken reeds he did not break them, he healed them (Matthew Ch12 v19). When he met men whose lives were dimly burning wicks he did not quench but fanned into flame. He restores the weak and the bruised. He never passed by, or worse, trampled on them. Those who have received mercy show mercy. Those who have received Christ show Christ.
Let’s remind ourselves that the key to a happy, God-favoured life (which is the meaning of blessed) is found in spiritual matters. We could have all the physical benefits of this world and yet Jesus says what good are they if we lose our soul? (Mark 8v36). How does Jesus know what would make you and me happy? If you have built your own home you know everything about it: where the services enter; how it was built; which walls are load-bearing (or structural) and which are not; you made it and you know everything about its construction. Jesus, as the Son of God, the word of God who in the words of John 1v2 ‘through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made’. He knows what will give you real joy, a joy which is above circumstances. He says in these words of Matthew 5 this is the key to knowing God’s favour, real happiness.
These ingredients are all to be part of the kingdom lives of the people of God. They are all essential and they flow from one another. Notice that ‘the poor in spirit mourn over their sins and as a result are marked by the meekness of those who know the truth about themselves in the presence of God. Such people hunger and thirst not for experience or knowledge but for righteousness (right with God, right living in God’s presence and a right society to live in). As they are filled by God and only by his mercy they become merciful to others’ (Sinclair Ferguson).
V8 Blessed are the Pure in Heart for they shall see God.
There are three Greek words translated in our English bibles as pure. This term (katharos) speaks of being unmixed with other things. For example if wine has been diluted with water it is not katharos wine, pure wine, irrespective of its taste. If this is the term used for our purity this is speaks of a heart being unmixed or undiluted by other things. If we take this understanding we can think of one psalm - Ps 86v11 as the psalmist asks God for an undivided heart. A divided heart sees ‘the secular swallow the sacred’ easily (Charles Price). In the Old Testament which Jesus’ hearers knew purity of heart would have spoken not only of being clean in ceremonial duties before God but about commitment of the heart and will to the Lord. Think of another psalm which was sung in Ps 24 where those who stand in the presence of the Lord have ‘clean hands and a pure heart’. They have not lifted their souls to an idol. The impure heart is undecided and divided before God allowing other matters to take the place which God deserves. The pure in heart is dedicated and absorbed by God. Already in the verses of Psalm 24 quoted above, the person with ‘clean hands and a pure heart’ is one ‘who does not lift up his soul to what is false (sc. an idol), and does not swear deceitfully’ (4). That is, in his relations with both God and man he is free from falsehood. So the pure in heart are ‘the utterly sincere’. Their whole life in public and private is transparent before God and men, and transparent in devotion to Christ. Alone among men Jesus Christ was absolutely pure in heart, being entirely guileless (John Stott). To the person who is undivided, undiluted, devoted and pure in heart we see God and his fingerprints all around us by faith now and fully in glory.
V9 Blessed are the Peacemakers for they will be called sons of God.
The next ingredient into a God-favoured life is peacemaking. We are not talking about UN peacekeepers trying to keep warring parties from killing each other. Rather, like the rest of the list, we are speaking about spiritual matters, about bring spiritual peace. God is described as the God of peace on numerous occasions in the bible. He made peace for us through Christ; he has reconciled us to himself (2 Cor 5v19-21). The Prince of peace makes reconciliation between God and man both by removing sin and by bringing men into a right relationship with God (Eph 2v11-22 – Don Carson). Making peace is part of God’s gracious character. Those who have become members of his family will share this family likeness. We will seek peace on a number of levels.
First we share in the work of peacemaking by sharing in the work of evangelism. To see the salvation or wholeness or well-being of a person when they come to know the peace of God is marvellous. ‘In bringing others to peace with God we share in the ministry of the Son of God’ (Charles Price).
Secondly there is seeking peace among God’s people. God’s people sometimes do not act as we should. Strife, bitterness, mistrust can be present and on occasion for very good reason. But peace between brothers and sisters is what we should seek, and it is indeed a ‘good thing’ Ps133. Some people regard peace as not important. Jesus does not share their view. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the particular blessing which attaches to peacemakers is that ‘they shall be called sons of God’. For they are seeking to do what their Father has done, loving people with his love, as Jesus is soon to make explicit. It is the devil who is a troublemaker; it is God who loves reconciliation and who now through his children, as formerly through his only begotten Son, is bent on making peace.
V9-12 Blessed as those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.
The final ingredient of the God-favoured life seems so out of place. Surely this message of peace to the world will be welcomed with open arms? Jesus says no. In fact it is the complete opposite. While some will respond to the message of peace others will take offence. Seeking to live as Jesus lived, a righteous life, will condemn others by implication. Real loyalty to Jesus and to his standards of truth and righteousness creates friction in the hearts of those who only pay him lip service. Loyalty arouses their consciences and leaves with two alternatives: follow Christ or silence him. Integrity ought to be an evidence of righteousness. Later in the bible it speaks of everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted 2 Tim 3v12. We need to remember these words. Jesus says here that is may be verbal either to your face or behind your back or it may be physical. Jesus says we are to rejoice and be glad because we are in good company (the prophets and Jesus himself) and our reward is great in his kingdom. This reaction is ‘for righteousness’ sake’ (10) and ‘on my account’ (11), that is, because they find distasteful the righteousness for which we hunger and thirst (6), and because they have rejected the Christ we seek to follow (John Stott). We may lose everything on earth, but we shall inherit everything in heaven. Since all the beatitudes describe what every Christian disciple is intended to be, we conclude that the condition of being despised and rejected, slandered and persecuted, is as much a normal mark of Christian discipleship as being pure in heart or merciful. Every Christian is to be a peacemaker, and every Christian is to expect opposition. Those who hunger for righteousness will suffer for the righteousness they crave (John Stott). What did Jesus say? John Ch15v18-20 ‘in this world you will have trouble but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’.
The beatitudes paint a comprehensive portrait of a Christian disciple. We see him first alone on his knees before God, acknowledging his spiritual poverty and mourning over it. This makes him meek or gentle in all his relationships, since honesty compels him to allow others to think of him what before God he confesses himself to be. Yet he is far from acquiescing in his sinfulness, for he hungers and thirsts after righteousness, longing to grow in grace and in goodness.
We see him next with others, out in the human community. His relationship with God does not cause him to withdraw from society, nor is he insulated from the world’s pain. On the contrary, he is in the thick of it, showing mercy to those battered by adversity and sin. He is transparently sincere in all his dealings and seeks to play a constructive role as a peacemaker. Yet he is not thanked for his efforts, but rather opposed, slandered, insulted and persecuted on account of the righteousness for which he stands and the Christ with whom he is identified.
Such is the man or woman who is ‘blessed’, that is, who has the approval of God and finds self-fulfilment as a human being (three paragraphs by John Stott).
This is the 400th year since the KJV (or Authorised Version) of the English bible was published. When it was published it was burned by those who preferred the Geneva Bible and by those who saw the KJV translation as too much interference by King James in the translation of the Greek manuscripts. In the KJV some of the phrases first put into English my William Tyndale a century before were included. These phrases have become part of our language today: fight the good fight, my brothers’ keeper, and the phrase Jesus uses here in v13ff the salt of the earth. This phrase, along with the light of the world, forms the focus of the next section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Someone has helpfully made a distinction between the opening verses of the sermon v3-12 with Christian conduct with the next section to v13- 16 as the Christian’s influence (John Stott). It is the same sermon as the 2nd person (you) is still used. Living out Jesus teaching will have an influence on the world around us. Kingdom living for you and me as followers of the king will involve an impact on the world in which we live. Jesus is not transferring us out of this world the moment we are converted. He wants us to live as his people in the word. It will bring opposition but the present of kingdom people living a kingdom life are needed in this world. Many would like to be rid of Christians. Jesus says this world needs us. John 17 tells us how he prays for us to be kept in the world and able to live as we should, his people, his subject. Jesus gives two household illustrations of why his people are needed in this world. Let’s think first of all today about what the image of salt and light meant to the people that Jesus first spoke them?
Christians are different from the world around them. The implication of these words is that Christians should be as different as light is from darkness and salt is from decay. This sermon is built on the assumption that Christians are different and it issues a call from us to be different (John Stott). These two statements are facts and not a command to be something. ‘Jesus is not urging us to become something we are not; he is telling is what we are as his kingdom people’ (Sinclair Ferguson). Notice the images.
Salt has a number of purposes. Its main purpose in Jesus day was as a preservative. It slows down the process of decay and perishing. The bible speaks of this worked as perishing 1 Cor 1v18 ‘the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,,,’ and 2 Cor 2v15 ‘we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing’ To halt this decay and perishing God gave his son Jesus so that ‘whoever believes in him may not perish John 3v16. As God’s people we preserve by introducing people to Christ by word and witness. The preservative work of Christian helps delay spiritual and moral decay in the world. Someone described it ‘Christians are the moral disinfectant in a world where moral standards are low, ever-changing or non-existent’ (Tasker). Without the influence of the gospel society will suffer moral decay (Sinclair Ferguson). God is using his people as a restraining influence in this world. Salt is different from the items it is being added to. It exercises all of its qualities by being different. If you had the preserving power or the seasoning power equating to salt why would you ever add it to anything? Salt is different. We also need to remember that you don’t need a lot of salt to have an influence. It is not the case that only when there are large numbers that we are strong. Jesus’ illustration reminds us that the apparently cheap and insignificant can influence is environment out of all proportion to our expectation (Sinclair Ferguson). Salt seasons (makes more attractive), it purifies and it creates thirst – all of which the kingdom life of Christians should do.
Light is the other example which Jesus gives. This is very interesting for Jesus is describing his people in the same way he describes himself. In John 9v5 he says ‘I am the light of the world’. The implication is clear: while he is present be brings illumination to the world; when he is not present that us our role (Charles Price). Jesus uses two pictures to speak of this light: a city visible on a dark night and a lamp. On both occasion the light needs to be seen. What light is to shine? Our good deeds, performed in such a way that people, some at least, will recognise us as followers of Jesus and come to praise our father. But that is not all. Since light is a common biblical symbol a Christian’s shining light must surely include our spoken testimony also. ‘The life of the person indwelt by the Lord is intended itself to be a message that people can read’ (Charles Price) God is light – 1 John 1v5 – illumination, revelation and holiness.
For a Christian to be salt and light we need to retain our saltiness and our let our light shine. In other words if we are going to be effective Christians we must retain our Christlikness. Salt without the saltiness is useless. What is a Christian without Christ? We are needed desperately today. We are needed every day, not just Sunday. But we are in a battle as are the people we pastor. The twin danger is we become like the world on the one hand and we cut ourselves off from the world on the other. This happens when we take our focus off our Saviour who prayed in John 17 not that we would be taken from the world but that we would be kept.
We are called to two things in these images. Positiviely we are called to illuminate the darkness by pointing to the light of the world. Negatively we prevent decay.
V17 to 20
When it comes to matters to do with Christianity the final word in any dispute is found on the pages of the bible. The teaching of the bible is the final court of appeal in any church dispute or discussion. We can have such a high view of the bible’s teaching because Jesus had such a high view of the bible. In John’s gospel he is recorded as saying ‘scripture cannot be broken’ (John 10v35). The scripture he was referring to was the Old Testament. That is not the only time he speaks of the importance of the Old Testament for the words we have reached in our study of his most famous sermon speak of Jesus and the Old Testament. When many people dismiss the its teaching, and even many Christians struggle with understanding the Old Testament, we have Jesus here spelling out his relationship to the teaching of the Old Testament. Jesus did not think you could pick and choose which commandments to obey or which teachings to adopt. Jesus tells us that the Old Testament has authority and it is all important, even down to the smallest letter. He tells us here what he thinks of God’s truth.
One of the things that the gospels marked Jesus out was the way he spoke. He spoke with authority. The end of this sermon shows this (Matt 7). When he spoke he didn’t need to quote from other human thinkers or writers. Instead he would introduce some of his teaching with the authoritative opening ‘truly I say to you’. In Mark Ch1v27 the comment about Jesus was clear ‘with authority he commands the unclean spirits and they obey him’. It meant that those listening to him were left questioning whether his was a new authority in opposition to the Old Testament teaching of God. Jesus says no. What he speaks is the fulfilment of the Old Testament. It is not a different message. It is not a separate message. It is the one message which Jesus fulfils. His life and teaching, his death and resurrection fulfilled the teachings and promises of the Old Testament. Think of Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament law and prophets in the following ways.
Jesus fulfilled the Law. ‘Torah’, usually translated ‘law’, really means ‘revealed instruction’. When we speak of the Law we are speaking of three areas: the ceremonial law which was the rituals and regulations on how to approach God; the civil law which detailed the responsibilities and obligations of living as God’s people; and the moral law which is summarized in the Ten Commandments, the standard behaviour set by God for all people at all times’ (Charles Price). The law which Jesus fulfils includes all these areas: life, conduct and behaviour before God. Jesus ‘fulfilled’ it all in the sense of bringing it to completion by his person, his teaching and his work.
Ceremonial Law. In the ceremonies and rituals there was detailed instructions of how to approach God. There were boundaries past which people could not go. There were alters, sacrifices, washings, etc all of which were used by God to show that approaching God was on God’s terms. They also showed that to approach God there had to be a substitute. Sin meant death, either of the person or the death of an innocent substitute. Over the centuries the lesson was being taught that sin means death and avoiding death there and then meant a substitute was required. When Jesus died he would cancel the claims of the law against all who would receive him as Saviour. One of the ways in which the law was fulfilled is that its punishment of sin must be carried out. That was why Jesus died.
What of the civil law? We are now, in the church, the people living under the rule and direction of God’s truth as his people in the world. Jesus lived out the civil law thoroughly.
The Moral law summarized in the New Testament by the commandments to ‘love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and to love our neighbour as ourselves’ stand forever. Jesus lived them out. He lived out obedience to the Ten Commandments. Jesus ‘fulfilled’ them in the first instance by obeying them, for he was ‘born under law’ and was determined (as he had already told John the Baptist) ‘to fulfil all righteousness’. Gal 4:4 and Matt 3v15 ‘He has in fact nothing to add to the commandments of God,’ wrote Bonhoeffer (a German pastor who resisted Hitler and his men in the second world war and was killed for his faith by the Nazis) ‘except this, that he keeps them.’ He does more than obey them himself; he explains what obedience will involve for his disciples. He rejects the superficial interpretation of the law given by the scribes; he himself supplies the true interpretation. His purpose is not to change the law, still less to annul it, but ‘to reveal the full depth of meaning that it was intended to hold’. So then he ‘fulfils it by declaring the radical demands of the righteousness of God’. He subjected himself to the position of carrying out the law. Notice how carefully Jesus observed the law, down to the smallest detail. That was why no-one could charge him with any breaking of the law. Because of this fulfilling we are now, by his Spirit living in us, subject willingly to the laws and direction of God Rom 8v2-4.
Matthew makes a point of mentioning this more than any other gospel writer ‘this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet’ ch1v22; 2:23; 3:3 etc. Think of the exact prophecies of his birth, the place of his birth, the manner of his birth; all were exactly fulfilled. The exact prophecies of the type of life he would lead and person he would be (Isa 53). Think of the prophecies of what he would do, how he would heal, how he would teach. Above all you have the prophecy of his death. Think of the literal, accurate description of the events at Calvary: the forsaking, the abuse, the intimidation, the piercings, and the thirst that are given in Psalm 22. Think of the promises of the resurrection in Psalm 16. It is no wonder that speaking to the two on the road to Emmaus that their hearts burned within them as Jesus explained to them all that was written in the law, the prophets and the psalms Luke 24v44. And he did so in the context of showing how these truths were fulfilled. Jesus makes it clear that the Old Testament speaks of him. We can then safely say that ‘the theme of the Old and New Testaments is the same: Christ, Jesus Christ. He is the one who was promised, who came, and whose ministry is now recorded and interpreted for our understanding’ (JM Boice).
Notice three practical applications. First we are not to ignore or relegate the Old Testament for it contains truth about Jesus in it. It may take more effort to establish the link but it is worthwhile, for it shows us Jesus. Secondly we are to notice the importance of the Ten Commandments. The coming of Christ did not alter the position of the Ten Commandments one hair's breadth. If anything, it exalted and raised their authority. (Rom. 3:31.) The law of the Ten Commandments is God's eternal measure of right and wrong; by it, is the knowledge of sin; by it, the Spirit shows men their need of Christ, and drives them to God and by it, Christ refers His people as their rule and guide for holy living (JC Ryle). Finally the standard of living through Christ is not lower now but higher. If the Jews were careful about the law how much more ought we to be careful of the directions of God. The more light we have, the more we ought to love God. The more clearly we see our own complete and full forgiveness in Christ, the more heartily ought we to work for His glory. We know what it cost to redeem us far better than the Old Testament saints did. We have read what happened in Gethsemane and on Calvary, and they only saw it dimly and indistinctly as a thing yet to come. May we never forget our obligations! The Christian who is content with a low standard of personal holiness has got much to learn (JC Ryle). Our Lord is teaching that the proof of our truly having received the grace of God in Jesus Christ is that we are living a righteous life. No longer living for self and our attainments; no longer self-righteous. The commandments of God are now a delight. (D.M L-Jones)
V 21 to 26 Anger
The reaction to Jesus’ is clear: it had authority. This is even more amazing when you consider the themes that Jesus was preaching were controversial. We now begin looking at the first of these controversial areas with anger & murder.
There is a phrase that introduces each of the next sections in this chapter ‘you have heard that it was said long ago’ in v21, 27, 31, 33, 38 and 43. Jesus refers to what was generally known to the people before stating that he saying something different v22 ‘But I tell you’ (again in 28, 32, 34, 39 and 44). Having told us that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it, why is Jesus giving a different standard to the standard generally known? Is he contradicting the law? The answer is no. Jesus appears to be concerned with two things: overthrowing wrong traditions and indicating authoritatively the real direction toward which the Old Testament scriptures point – Carson. The contrast is between the wrong conclusions that the scribes and Pharisees had been telling people about the law and his revelation of his truth, as revealed first in the OT (Old Testament) and now in the NT (New Testament). Some of the things said were directly from the OT; others were not (for instance, hate your enemy in v43). Jesus is directing us to the fact that the law of God was not merely an external issue but an internal requirement and his teaching highlights this. Jesus is illustrating a new type of life, a new type of behaviour. His kingdom direction was not merely keeping some external rules. Rather Jesus gives us principles which are to govern our lives. Jesus wants our thoughts, motives and desires to be directed by his word and not simply our actions only. The law of God is concerned as much with what leads to the action as it is with the action itself. Basically what Jesus is saying is this: it is not simply committing murder that the law speaks of. It is not simply the act of murder or the act of adultery or the act of divorce. It also speaks of what lies behind them. Therefore when we use the phrase ‘if looks could kill’ Jesus is saying the law of God has a direct impact upon our anger.
No-one argues that murder is acceptable. Jesus states here that the commandment not to murder not only forbids the outward act but also every thought and word that seeks to destroy a man’s life. For Jesus, to kill with a knife or engage in character assassination through anger or to belittle another by calling him a fool is part and parcel of the same spiritual sickness. Clearly he does not mean that there is no difference whether we stab or we gossip, but he does mean that both activities reveals the same animosity of heart to our neighbours (Sinclair Ferguson). God is concerned with our heart. God is concerned with anger as with the shedding of blood. If we think about this we can see why Jesus says this. Think about the person who almost kills someone but is foiled at the last moment by the police or someone else. Think of the man who would like nothing better than to kill his enemy but is prevented because of fear of getting caught. Does God have nothing to say about these men who although not actually having killed would want to? Jesus says our anger and intents are included in the teaching about the sanctity of life.
Jesus goes onto to speak of how we describe people. He uses two terms in v22. AB. Bruce probably preserves the major difference between the words when he writes: ‘Raca expresses contempt for a man’s head = you stupid!; mōre expresses contempt for his heart and character = you scoundrel! – (John Stott). Anger and insult are ugly symptoms of a desire to get rid of somebody who stands in our way. Our thoughts, looks and words all indicate that, as we sometimes dare to say, we ‘wish he were dead’. Such an evil wish is a breach of the sixth commandment. And it renders the guilty person liable to the very penalties to which the murderer exposes himself, not in each case literally in a human law court (for no court can charge a man with anger) but before the bar of God (John Stott) ‘Killing does not only mean destroying life physically, it means still more trying to destroy the spirit and the souls, destroying the person in any shape or form’ (M L Jones)
What are we learning in these verses? Our attitude and our words are far more serious before God that we usually assume. ‘Jesus by his own authority insists that the judgement thought to be reserved for the actual murderer in reality hangs over the wrathful, the spiteful and the contemptuous. Which of us can then say we are innocent before God? Who among us has never felt hate, bitterness, and unpleasant, unkind resentment towards others? Jesus says we are under the judgement of the law.
How do we deal with our anger then?
The first thing we remember is that not all anger is wrong. Jesus was angry on occasion and we are told in Eph 4v26 in our anger do not sin. There is a righteous anger where Jesus rejects angrily all self-righteousness that rejects the grace of God. Sin should make us angry, not at the person but at sin’s causes. Having said that notice the two illustrations Jesus gives to his people in v23-25. They both show how vital it is to have right relationships with others. ‘The illustration of the man in church underlines the necessity of reconciliation. The illustration to two men going to court underlines the urgency of reconciliation’ (Sinclair Ferguson). If our righteousness is going to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees then our relationships will be governed by a different standard.
How does all this make us feel? It exposes us before God’s holy law. The things we have said and thought are covered by God’s commands. We need to take the words of Jesus onboard and act quickly. We need to acknowledge our sin and confess it before God. No words of self-defence or excuses will count. We are guilty. We need to respond to his terms. What are they? Come to him through Christ. He has taken our debt, he has paid for it. He has cancelled it. In spite of all that we are he deliberately came to give himself for us (M L Jones). It is only through him that we can be forgiven, having our lawbreaking dealt with, and accepted before God. This is not comfortable listening. But it is essential for we are dealing with one whose authority we must recognise, who word is true and whose death alone gives life. From that, when we are right before God, we respond as we ought to others.
Psalm 139 tells us we can hide nothing from God. He knows what we think of him, others and ourselves. We cannot hide our thoughts from God. This ties in neatly with the next stage in our study of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus gives some very searching and uncomfortable teaching about how our hearts operate and how this is viewed by God. We are told by advertisers that ‘sex sells’. Advertisers are paid by companies want us to desire their products and if that can induce that lust by using models then great. Therefore whether it was beer cans over the decades, packs of cards right down to our generation when everything from cars to cosmetics use models with few items of clothing we are confronted by an attitude that is totally different to what Jesus tells us in these words of the Sermon on the Mount. We are informed that our minds, and our lusts, are known to God and will be dealt with by God. Jesus made clear that his authoritative teaching was not something new but rather the correct application of the law of God. His standards expose us. His standards reveal our need of a saviour. And his standards highlight his spotless purity for Jesus was one who did ‘practice what he preached’. What greater example do we need than praying on the cross that his father would forgive those who were crucifying him for they did not know what they were doing? (Luke 23v34). We need to remember this is Jesus speaking and just as the people listening to Jesus took note of him we need to do likewise.
The heart and mind
As they did with the command not to murder once again the religious teachers were attempting to limit the scope of the commandment you shall not commit adultery. Although the sin of desiring another man’s wife is included in the tenth commandment against covetousness, they evidently found it more comfortable to ignore this. In their view they and their pupils kept the seventh commandment, provided that they avoided the act of adultery itself. They thus gave a conveniently narrow definition of sexual sin and a conveniently broad definition of sexual purity (John Stott). Jesus makes clear that sin is not mercy a matter of actions and of deeds; it is something within the heart that leads to the action. This means we need to focus not on the symptom so much as the cause. If you go to the doctor with pain in a part of your body the doctor will be failing if he or she merely gives you painkillers to deal with the pain rather than pinpoint why you are having pain. In this authoritative teaching of Jesus he is telling it is not merely the outward, physical breaking of God’s law that is important. It is the inward desires and where they spring from. This is why Christianity is a heart movement. No keeping of rules or effort can secure our welcome from God: only a heart made new. Here the challenge is this: what is going on in our minds and where do these lustful thoughts come from? Jesus, whom John tells us in John 2v25 ‘knows what is in our hearts’ challenges those of us who have not physically committed adultery and think we are ok before God just as much as those who have broken God’s law and committed adultery. Jesus says the man who looks at a woman lustfully commits heart adultery with her (Sinclair Ferguson). How pure are our minds? I think we need to stop here to emphasise a couple of things. God made men and women to be attracted to each other, to need each other and to enter relationships with each other that have physical, spiritual and emotional dimensions. It is possible to know intimacy, companionship, friendship and stability for ourselves, family and society at large. Our appreciation of men and women: looks, gifts, graces, is not wrong. It is when the looking becomes lustful that we are getting into danger (Sinclair Ferguson). It is when this lust consumes and devours, when imagination takes over and mentally all manner of things take place (Don Carson). Job made a stand in his day ‘I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl (Job 31v1). This challenges men and the challenge also is relevant for women. It must be the case that our generation is more sexualised that Job’s. If there was a need in Job’s day to take steps to prevent our minds and relationships being corrupted how much more today. The control of his heart was due to the control of his eyes (John Stott).
When we read these words of Jesus we cannot but see our guilt. Who of us can claim purity and obedience to the spirit of the commandment? To use another medical metaphor this is the horrible medicine we must deal with if we are to be cured. We see the blackness of our sin in the sight of God. Jesus tells us that lustful, heart adultery has consequences in v29,30. This was evidently a favourite saying of Jesus, for he quoted it more than once. It recurs later in this same Gospel (Matt 18v8,9) where the foot is added to the eye and the hand, and the reference is a general one to ‘temptations to sin’, not explicitly to sexual temptation. So the principle has a wider application. Nevertheless, it is to this particular realm that Jesus applied it in the Sermon on the Mount. What did he mean by it? What he was advocating was not a literal physical self-maiming, but a ruthless moral self-denial. Not mutilation but mortification is the path of holiness he taught, and ‘mortification’ or ‘taking up the cross’ to follow Christ means to reject sinful practices so resolutely that we die to them or put them to death. Jesus says we must deal drastically with this issue. Sin is no light thing in the eyes of Jesus. When Jesus speaks of hell as the punishment for sin we must take it seriously. God and sin are incompatible and there sin leads to rejection by God. Of course this teaching runs clean counter to modern standards of permissiveness. It is based on the principle that eternity is more important than time and purity than culture, and that any sacrifice is worthwhile in this life if it is necessary to ensure our entry into the next. We have to decide, quite simply, whether to live for this world or the next, whether to follow the crowd or Jesus Christ.
Praise God today that where there is no human cure for sin there is a divine cure. The law say ‘you shall not’, we stand condemned and yet our saviour says ‘I can forgive’. Adultery, actual and heart, like every other sin can be taken to the cross of Christ and there we will find forgiveness and reconciliation to God. With our guilt the only place to turn to is God. Forgiveness is found in God alone. ‘The gospel tells of one who is spotless and pure and utterly holy and he has taken my sin and my guilt upon him. We are then washed in his precious blood, given a new nature – a new hear’ (M L – Jones). Today with our past, with our minds and hearts the only place we can go is in humility, as guilty lawbreakers to the cross of Jesus where alone we will find forgiveness. Note Jeremiah 31v34; Ps 103v12 forgiving and forgetting.
In his autobiography Bill Clinton described his dealings with the famous evangelist Billy Graham. His description of Billy Graham is one which ties in with our study in the Sermon on the Mount. Clinton described Graham as a man who lived his faith. In other words his faith shaped his decisions, conduct, and his attitude seven days a week, fifty two days per year. Living our faith is what Jesus is talking about in this sermon. He is teaching his people we live our Christian, kingdom, lives in a fallen world. When Jesus speaks of divorce he was speaking of a hot-topic of debate in his day and of a reality for many of us today. I would doubt if there are many families here who have not been impacted in some way by the pain of divorce. We may have gone through a divorced, your children or parents may be divorced or your wider family or friends have divorced. Why talk about an issue which causes so much distress? Our answer is because Jesus spoke of divorce. One benefit of consecutive sermons on passages is that we are forced to deal with issues which we would want to avoid. With the hurt that this sensitive issue has caused it is not my intention to add to that hurt today but look at what Jesus says on this issue.
Jesus has been contrasting the commonly held opinions & teaching of religious people with his authoritative fulfilling of the law of God. The contrast is seen in the words ‘you have heard it said’ with his ‘but I say to you’. Having dealt with the issues of murder and adultery where the religious folks said you were ok if you had not actually committed the physical act of murder or adultery, Jesus gives us the explanation that the law covers intent as well as actions. Therefore which of us is guilt free? When it comes to divorce Jesus is speaking into a particular situation. Again the religious folks and Jesus were on different wavelengths. Two views prevailed among religious teachers. One view (Hillel) was that if your wife displeased you then you could divorce her. This was so lax that if her cooking was not up to scratch or things of that order became issues then the man would divorce the woman, leaving the women destitute. The other view (Shammai) was that only gross indecency was a matter for divorce.
The key text was Dt 24v1-4. There were three things about this passage in Dt 24 to observe. First in a situation where women were being routinely divorced by their husbands for little reason other than the whims of men, the words in Dt 24 limited when a divorce could happen to very specific cases. Secondly by giving a certificate of divorce it meant she was safe from accusations of adultery (which carried the death penalty) so this was to protect the woman. This helped emphasise the seriousness of what they were entering into. Thirdly the certificate of divorce meant the man could not marry the woman again if she married someone else and got a certificate from them also. The whole OT law was to show that marriage was not something unimportant that you could dissolve if you wished. It was serious. And if divorce was to occur the law protected the women from exploitation. It was into this context that Jesus spoke in Ch19 and here in the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus focused on oneness; Pharisees on separation.
In Ch19 you see how the question asked by the Pharisees fits with their thinking ‘is it lawful to divorce for any and every reason?’ Jesus’ reply was not a reply. He declined to answer their question. Instead, he asked a counter-question about their reading of Scripture. He referred them back to Genesis, both to the creation of mankind as male and female (chapter 1) and to the institution of marriage (chapter 2) by which a man leaves his parents and cleaves to his wife and the two become one. This biblical definition implies that marriage is both exclusive (‘a man … his wife’) and permanent (‘cleave’ or ‘be joined’ to his wife). It is these two aspects of marriage which Jesus selects for emphasis in his comments which follow (6). First, ‘So they are no longer two but one flesh,’ and secondly, ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.’ Thus marriage, according to our Lord’s exposition of its origins, is a divine institution by which God makes permanently one two people who decisively and publicly leave their parents in order to form a new unit of society and then ‘become one flesh’ (John Stott). Marriage is something where two become one. When God made woman for man that was his intention. This is God’s own view of marriage. Jesus is not focused on reasons to separate but on the reasons to remain together.
Jesus focused on God’s concession; Pharisees on a command.
All this raises a question. If this is God’s teaching why does he allow in the OT law divorce to take place? This is what the Pharisees were getting at in v7. Had they finally caught Jesus disputing the law of Moses? The answer Jesus gave was about the hardness of man’s heart. Their excuses given for divorce showed that the hardness of heart prevalent in Moses’ day was alive and well in the Pharisees. God did not change his opinion about marriage, nor has he changed it today, but he introduced a temporary measure to deal with the conditions of putting away with wives whenever they felt like it. God is not advocating divorce. Instead where there was chaos in the use of separating God brought a sense of order to it (M L Jones). That it was not a divine instruction, but only a divine concession to human weakness. It was for this reason that ‘Moses allowed you to divorce …’, he said (8). But then he immediately referred again to the original purpose of God, saying: ‘But from the beginning it was not so.’ Thus even the divine concession was in principle inconsistent with the divine institution (John Stott).
Jesus’ high standard; Pharisees low standard
The impact of divorce extends further than the couple involved. Families are impacted. Future relationships are impacted. Jesus standard in reference to divorce is high, for the individuals involved and any future relationships they may have. Note Ch5v32 and Ch19v9.the only concession Jesus gives here is that of unfaithfulness on the part of one partner the person who commits adultery have broken the bond and become united to another. Since God instituted marriage as an exclusive and permanent union, a union which he makes and man must not break, Jesus draws the inevitable deduction that to divorce one’s partner and marry another, or to marry a divorced person, is to enter a forbidden, adulterous relationship. For the person who may have secured a divorce in the eyes of human law is still in the eyes of God married to his or her first partner (John Stott). Jesus teaches that the destruction of a marriage is carnage in God’s sight. His teaching is a corrective for the divorce-on-demand thinking of his day and our day. On top of that divorce on unbiblical grounds complicates sin rather than cures it, and may implicate others in sin rather than absolve them (Sinclair Ferguson). But let me emphasise that this is a concession and not a command. The bible speaks of repentance and forgiveness. Even in the case of unfaithfulness it is not automatic that a divorce may happen. There option is there but recognizing how we have been forgiven helps us to forgive others.
We must remember that divorce is serious. We must remember that God hates divorce. We must remember it is a symptom of the brokenness of this world due to sin. We must remember to work at our marriages. We must also remember that this is not the unforgivable sin. Divorce can be forgiven by God if we repent. Like other sins if we truly repent and realize the enormity of our sin and throw ourselves on the boundless love and mercy and grace of God we can be forgiven. In any discussion of marriage and divorce we need to be aware of Ephesians Ch4 and the teaching of the permanent unity in marriage as seen in the link with Jesus and his people.
One rule which operates in the British House of Commons is that one MP cannot call another MP a lair. They may use phrases such as ‘the honourable member has just made a terminological in-exactitude’ or some other response but you cannot call a fellow MP a liar. It is a bit silly really as MP’s know when someone is being accused of lying but as long as you don’t use the word ‘liar’ you cannot get into trouble. I think the Pharisees and teachers of Jesus’ day would have fitted in well to life in the House of Commons in this regard because Jesus addresses in this section of the Sermon on the Mount the use of our words, specifically oaths and vows that we make, and he contrasts his authoritative teaching as the ‘great law-giver, the great legislator’ (M L Jones) with that of the Pharisees. But as with all the teaching that Jesus gives in this part of the sermon its application does not remain with the religious teachers of the day but applies to us also. What we say and how we say it are directly challenged by Jesus’ teaching. According to Jesus what comes out of our mouths reflects our heart ‘Matthew 12v34 ‘out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’. Therefore our words portray our hearts. The issue of how truthful our words are goes beyond our mouths to our very heart.
Playing with words
The people in Jesus day made many oaths or vows and were given direction by the religious folks in how to make an oath or vow. The difference between an oath and vow is hard to determine but one writer distinguishes them by saying an oath concerned with someone’s future actions (think of Acts Ch22 when forty men took an oath to murder Paul) where a vow was related to objects and their use (think of Ananias and Saphira in Acts Ch5). Behind both the oath and a vow was the recognition that it was serious. If you made an oath to God you were calling upon God to witness his vow and punish if you broke it. Ex 20v7 (3rd commandment); Lev 19:12; Nu 30:2; Dt 23v21 (John Stott). Oaths were widely used in the OT and direction for their use was given in the law. The teaching of the Mosaic law was designed to restrain the proneness to lie and also to restrict oath taking to serious & important matter. As God’s people they were reminded in their talk and conversation, and especially in the taking of oaths we are following God who is holy, so we must be also (M-L Jones).
Godly men in the OT (Old Testament) used oaths, as did Paul on a number of occasion in the NT (New Testament). Above all we have God making oaths in the OT. God swears not to send another flood in Gen 9v9-11; he swears to send a redeemer Luke 1v68, 73, and to raise his son from the dead Ps 16v10 (Don Carson). Why did God swear in the OT? Gen 22v16,7. The purpose was not to increase God’s credibility (Num 23v19 tells us that God is not a man what he should lie’) but to elicit and confirm our faith. God condescended to this human level to help our unbelief not because of any untrustworthiness on his part (John Stott). Just as a parent speaks to a small child in baby language they can understand so also God comes down to a level where we can understand him. Far from following the pattern set by God the situation in Jesus’ time was that truth was corrupted. One writer quotes frivolous swearing when it was neither necessary nor proper. Mt 23v16-22 shows that if you swear by gold it is binding but the temple is not. The swearing of oaths had degenerated into terrible rules which let you know what you can get away with lying and deception and when you cannot. Swearing evasively becomes justification for lying (Don Carson). And as long as you didn’t use the name for God you were ok – use heaven, earth or other names but don’t use God. It was playing with words. You could swear by heaven or earth but so that they were not using God’s name you were free to break their promises. There was no absolute commitment to do something unless God’s name was used. It was how some behaved as children. Do you promise? Yes. Really? Yes. When they break their promise they saw ‘I had my fingers crossed’. It is playing with words and Jesus says that is not what kingdom living is about.
Present with God
Why does Jesus say this? Jesus dismisses the formulae used by the Pharisees for vows as an irrelevance because however you word your vow you cannot avoid reference to God. The whole world is God’s and you cannot eliminate him from any of it. Therefore the precise wording of the vow is irrelevant as is a preoccupation with the wording (John Stott). Heaven is God’s, earth is God’s footstool therefore no promise can be made, no word ever spoken, without it being done in the presence of God. Jesus relates every oath to God for in some way God stands behind everything. Oaths are solemn pledges to speak the truth. It is dishonest to try and manipulate them. It gives the appearance of commitment when all the time it is dishonest. The Christian does not need to invoke the name of God because he or she knows that God is listening, God is watching, God is present when we speak (Sinclair Ferguson). From this we see that Jesus forbids the use of the name of God in an oath. He forbids swearing by any creature for they belong to God. All is under God. No oaths or exaggerations are needed before God (ML Jones). Both swearing and divorce were permitted by the law, neither was commanded. Neither should be necessary (John Stott). Instead Jesus wants us to take note of what we say. Anything that goes beyond yes or no is lies and comes from the father of lies John 8v44. Cf James 5v12. ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no’. The real implication of the law is that we must keep our promises and be people of our word. Truth is sacred; our speech should honour it (Sinclair Ferguson)
There are a number of practical issues that Jesus teaching addresses. First there is the taking of oaths in a court of law. Some Christian groups through the centuries have taken Jesus words of v34 ‘Do not swear at all’ literally and refuse to give an oath when testifying. But is that what Jesus means? Is it not rather the misinformed, unhealthy ‘I am never going to keep oaths’ that Jesus speaks to? After all Jesus himself spoke under oath at the trial before the Sanhedrin. We read that in Matthew Ch26. He was silent but when put on oath by the High Priest he spoke. Jesus was prepared to speak on that occasion. He did not denounce the appropriateness of the oath. ‘It is not that we refuse to take an oath if asked by the law but we should not need to initiate an oath’ (John Stott).
Secondly we have the challenge over how reliable our word is. Are we models of integrity? As followers of the truth (John 14v6) truth must be our watchword. How do we exaggerate? How do we give a slanted impression when we speak? How many of us say we will do things but not get round to it because it inconveniences us? (Don Carson). We ‘should mean what we say and say what we mean’ (John Stott). The fact is that speaking the truth can be among the most effective evangelistic tools we have. It will mark us out as people who can be trusted. Why can we be trusted? Because of our love for Jesus.
Finally we think of Jesus who spoke these words. The gospel record bears evidence to the prophecy about the Saviour coming that ‘no deceit will be in his mouth’ Isa 53. It was promised that there would be no dishonesty, no hypocrisy, no deception, no half-truths, and no broken promises. What he said was true. Today we should be thankful that he didn’t follow the pattern of this world but lived to please his heavenly father in all things, including his speech. And this was so that he would be qualified to take our place, pay our penalty for sin, wipe away every broken promise and every ill-times oath to make us acceptable before God. Jesus asks us no more than to live as he did.
The next section of the study is all about our rights, or more accurately, not using these rights. This sermon of Jesus is his direction on how he wishes his people to live under his rule. It is a kingdom message where as citizens of the kingdom of heaven we submit to the direction of King Jesus. The teaching of Jesus has been uncomfortable for us. We have been exposed by Jesus’ teaching on anger, heart adultery, divorce and the truthfulness of our words. The next message in our series is no less uncomfortable. He gives us phrases which have become part of our common language: an eye of an eye, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile etc. What does Jesus mean by these words? Before we look at the statements in turn we must remember the context of what is being said otherwise we may hear what we want rather than hear what Jesus intends. Jesus has been giving the real meaning & real purpose of God’s law (But I say to you) rather than the commonly held meaning (you have heard that it was said). The context is the law of God and the current practice of the people.
The law of God regarding revenge is given in Exodus ch21; Leviticus 24 and Dt 19. But we must remember what this law was for. It was to restrict punishment and eliminate tribal feuds. One action led to a more severe reaction. Someone stole from you. You then beat someone up. A family member then feels duty bound to kill you for beating up someone. Your family members then feel duty bound to kill an entire family and the whole thing gets out of hand. The law of God was to restrict what punishment could be handed out. Secondly we should note that it was given to the nation, not individuals. In other words it was the judiciary who were responsible for the punishing not the people wronged, much as it is in our day. If that is what the law was intended for how was it in the time of Jesus? Instead of thinking of the restriction of the law it became a case of how far can my retaliation extend without breaking the law. On top of that it was dragged into the personal arena where it could not only lead to vigilante behaviour but bitterness, vengeance and hatred. There are four areas which Jesus speaks of his direction about our rights to retaliate, our legal rights, our right to time and money. This list is not designed to be a complete list of where we absolve our rights but to indicate the type of character God requires of us.
Right to retaliation v39
The image is of someone being slapped on the face. This was an insult, especially if it was with the back of your hand. The course of action required for this insult is to take someone to court. With this insult Jesus is saying to us not to stand on our right and seek to have our dignity reaffirmed. Instead ‘we are to show by our response we have no need for retaliation because our reputation is secure with God, as his child. We respond to insults in a gracious manner because of the Fathers response to our insults against him’ (Sinclair Ferguson). Turning the other cheek is not responding the way others do, for Jesus sake. There are two NT passages which help cement this teaching for God’s people. One is Romans Ch12v19-21 where we are told to remember who sees and who will deal with those who abuse his children. The second one is 1 Peter 2v23-24 when he was insulted Jesus did not retaliate; when he suffered he made no threats. Instead he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly’ (JM Boice). Can this be done? Yes it can. If the Spirit of Jesus is within us. Tom Skinner was the leader of the largest, toughest, teenage gang in New York City, the Harlem Lords. His conversion was so real that he left the gang the next day and started preaching. Several weeks after his conversion he was playing a game of US football when he was punched in the stomach and called all manner of racist bile. Under normal circumstances Skinner recalled that he would have got up and pulverised the guy who punched him. Instead he went up to him and said ‘you know, because of Jesus Christ, I love you anyway’. He was a new creature in Christ. How do we react to anger? Or people speaking behind your back? Or people spreading lies? Or neighbour problems. Are we new creatures? In the kingdom the right of retaliation is gone.
Right to legal issues v40
There was a law which limited how much you could sue a man for his possessions. You could not sue him for his outer tunic, cloak or coat as it was there to keep him warm in winter and protect him from the cold at night (Ex 22v26-7). Those listening to Jesus knew this so when he spoke to them he was saying that even if the law protected them they were still not to live by the right to their possessions or their legal rights full stop. Paul later speaks of would we not rather be wronged in the context of taking our brothers to court (1 Cor 6v7ff). Paul speaks of where the sin of others abounds grace should abound much more Rom 5v20. What about us? All that we have is from God: money, homes, cars, etc
Right to time v41
One of the signs that the people were under occupation by the Roman Empire was that at any moment they could be compelled to serve. We saw Simon of Cyrene as someone compelled to serve. Jesus said that if this was to happen his people should not obey grudgingly with resentment but do more than was asked by good grace (J M Boice). This would show that you have another Emperor and belong to another Empire, with principles stronger than the Roman one. (Sinclair Ferguson) How do we take interruptions to our time and routines? How do we respond when we are given more work than our colleagues? Jesus directs us to see who we are serving.
Right to money v42
This speaks of giving and lending cheerfully and willingly. The issue is not the wisdom or foolishness of lending money to everyone who comes along (Prov 11v15; 17v18 and 22v26). The issue is responding to need. This is what happened in the early church and those who willingly gave to the Lord and his people and others were praised if they did so cheerfully (2 Cor 9v7). Does not the apostle John tell us that ‘if anyone has material possession and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth (1 John 3v17-18). Perhaps few things reveal the true depth of our Christianity as clearly as our attitude towards money (J M Boice). Christ will not tolerate a penny-pinching, tight-fisted attitude.
A life of self-sacrifice and Christ-like service is calling us. This applies to our rights. Personal self-sacrifice displaces personal retaliation for this is the example of Jesus. Jesus’ illustrations and personal example depict not the weakling who offers no resistance. He himself challenged the high priest when questioned by him in court John 18v19-23. They depict rather the strong man whose control of himself and love for others are so powerful that he rejects absolutely every conceivable form of retaliation. Think of the rights which Jesus gave up for us. Philippians Ch2 tells us of the one who left glory for us to become a servant and to die. That principle is love, the selfless love of a person who, when injured, refuses to satisfy himself by taking revenge, but studies instead the highest welfare of the other person and of society, and determines his reactions accordingly. He will certainly never hit back, returning evil for evil, for he has been entirely freed from personal animosity. Instead, he seeks to return good for evil. So he is willing to give to the uttermost—his body, his clothing, his service, his money—in so far as these gifts are required by love (John Stott).
V43 to the end - Loving our enemies
Nowhere is the division between the standards of this world and the standards of Jesus more clearly seen that in v43ff as Jesus teaches how we view our enemies READ v43. The ‘core of Christian ethics (behaviour, attitude) is found in the character of God, for they teach that the Christian is to love others, not as man loves his friends, but as God loves’ (JM Boice).
As with all the sections of teaching from v21 inwards Jesus is showing the real meaning of God’s law in contrast to the commonly held view. Some of the commonly held views quoted section of God’s law; others added to the law of God. This is one section where both issues were clear: only taking part of what was said and also adding our own interpretation to what God’s teaching said. The direction in Lev 19v18 was to love their neighbours as themselves. It is interesting to note how love was included in the law of God. We tend to think of it being either love or law; both were present here. The views held in Jesus day deliberately narrows both the standard of love (leaving out the crucial words ‘as yourself’, which pitch the standard very high) and its objects (qualifying the category of ‘neighbour’ by specifically excluding enemies from it and adding the command to hate them instead which is nowhere in the law of God). I call the perversion ‘blatant’ because it is totally lacking in justification, and yet the rabbis would have defended it as a legitimate interpretation. Jews took the word neighbour to be exclusive and so they would only love their neighbour and therefore hate their enemy (Don Carson). If this was the situation Jesus faced what does he say he people should do?
Love your enemies
What, then, is our duty to our neighbour, whether he be friend or foe? We are to love him. The point he is making is that true love is not sentiment so much as service—practical, humble, sacrificial service. As Dostoyevsky put it somewhere, ‘Love in action is much more terrible than love in dreams.’ Our enemy is seeking our harm; we must seek his good. For this is how God has treated us. It is ‘while we were enemies’ that Christ died for us to reconcile us to God. If he gave himself for his enemies, we must give ourselves for ours. Chrysostom saw this responsibility to pray for our enemies as ‘the very highest summit of self-control’. This is the supreme command,’ wrote Bonhoeffer. ‘Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God.’Moreover, if intercessory prayer is an expression of what love we have, it is a means to increase our love as well. It is impossible to pray for someone without loving him, and impossible to go on praying for him without discovering that our love for him grows and matures. Stott This standard begs the question how. The principle of this world is that we either retaliate or ignore our enemies. Only the example of God gives us string motives to help us love our enemies. God shows love to his enemies by making the sin and rain come to all. He has every reason to retaliate against sinners for the dishonour they have done to his creation. Instead he shows mercy and patience. We are to do the same. Like father, like son (Sinclair Ferguson). Divine love is indiscriminate love, shown equally to good men and bad. The theologians (following Calvin) call this God’s ‘common grace’. It is not ‘saving grace’, enabling sinners to repent, believe and be saved; but grace shown to all mankind, the penitent and the impenitent, believers and unbelievers alike. This common grace of God is expressed, then, not in the gift of salvation but in the gifts of creation, and not least in the blessings of rain and sunshine, without which we could not eat and life on the planet could not continue. This, then, is to be the standard of Christian love. We are to love like God, not men (John Stott). The persecutors are presumably those who are persecuting the people for Jesus sake (Ch5v10-12). To love and pray for them is an important part of being a son of the heavenly father. God loved rebellious sinners so much that he sent his son (John 3v16 and Rom 5v8) and if we are his sons we will have his character. Being persecuted aligns oneself with the prophets; loving and praying for them aligns oneself with God. Followers of Jesus must not stoop to the low standards of his society. The disciple of Jesus will stand out in the world because is his divine qualities (Don Carson).
Follow your Saviour
This counter-cultural way of living is to follow the pattern set by Jesus. We have mentioned often in recent weeks that Jesus is not preaching something here that he does not do. It is easy for you to see glaring omissions in my life with regard to the standard of this sermon, but there are no omissions with Jesus. He loved his enemies. He prayed for those who persecuted him. When the Roman Soldiers had hammered nails into his hands and feet, and hoisted him vertical so that pain signals shot from the different parts of his body to his brain he prayed ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’ Luke 23. This Christ-like following was seen in Stephen in Acts Ch7. There as rocks hurled towards his body, his head and he saw those who were behind this he prayed for them and asked that they be forgiven. This is following Jesus. How is a follower of Jesus distinguished if he only loves those who love him? If we only love those who love us what marks us out as special or different? Fallen man is not incapable of loving. The doctrine of total depravity does not mean (and has never meant) that original sin has rendered men incapable of doing anything good at all, but rather that every good they do is tainted to some degree by evil. Unredeemed sinners can love. Parental love, filial love, conjugal love, the love of friends—all these, as we know very well, are the regular experience of men and women outside Christ. The Tax collectors, the pagans all do that. God’s people should be different; we should be extra-ordinary for our father is extra-ordinary. (Sinclair Ferguson)
This is what it means to be ‘perfect’. He is not assuming we can reach moral perfection in this life rather he is showing the way in which the father is perfect in his love for his enemies. The mark of perfection is not that our love is determined by the loveliness or the attractiveness of the object. His love is not condition on his being first loved. His love is controlled by the knowledge that when he was God’s enemy and a sinner the father loved him first. If he is to show the father’s love then he will do likewise.
For we are the sons of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, and we can demonstrate whose sons we are only when we exhibit the family likeness, only when we become peacemakers as he is (9), only when we love with an all-embracing love like his (45, 48).
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