Monday, January 16, 2012

The Teachings of Jesus (I), Week 3: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount Introduction (Mt 5:1-20)

As we finally begin to get into the meat of Jesus’ sermon on Mosaic Law, He begins with an introduction. Jesus’ introduction to His sermon on the Mosaic Law can essentially be broken down into three parts:

1. Conveyance of blessings (Mt 5:1-12)
2. Context for the sermon (Mt 5:13-16)
3. Purpose statement of the sermon (Mt 5:17-20)

1. Conveyance of Blessings (Mt 5:1-12)

Jesus first begins, as many Jewish sermons did, with a conveyance of blessings on the crowd.

“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ “ (Mt 5:1-12, ESV)

As one our church’s pastors recently shared during a sermon, it is interesting to note that if you were to make a list of “evidences that God has blessed you”, you would probably come up with the exact opposite of what Jesus says above. You say that you are blessed because of comfort and no deaths in the family and living in a peaceful nation, and freedom of religion. Jesus says, you are blessed when you are mourning, when you are persecuted, when you are lacking in power, when you have to make peace during times of trouble.

A few comments are valuable here, as many Christians get wrongly anxious about this passage.

First, a word about blessings. Very rarely does Greek literature outside of the Bible use a term like blessing; it is largely a Hebrew concept. To be blessed by God meant that God was showing you favor, loved you, conferring grace upon you. It meant that God was providing for you in a positive, active way.

Second, what Jesus did not say is, “This is the only way to be blessed.” He does not say, “Go and become these things so that you can be blessed.” To draw that conclusion is a logical fallacy—Jesus says, if you are these things you are blessed; this does not imply that if you are not those things, you are not blessed.

Third, Jesus makes no commands here at all. He is simply stating a fact—people in this condition receive blessings. God takes care of these kinds of people and shows them love. As a typical Jewish preacher, He is blessing the crowd—even if it is a bit of an unusual blessing.

Fourth, his listeners would have been just as surprised to see this list as you and I. This is a very non-typical blessing. If you look at Acts 14:8-20, for example, when Paul is telling his listeners to count their blessings from God, he names things like joy, food, and a good living (healthy crop production). You see similar lists elsewhere in Scripture. The first century was not so different from our own; and just like today, if a set of believers gathers together to count their blessings, you are much more likely to hear a list of things like, “I have a good job” than “I got laid off”; or “I have a great family” than “I just suffered a miscarriage”. Few people would see these as blessings, despite what Jesus says here.

That is, I believe the entire point of Jesus conferring blessings in this manner. The crowds who followed and surrounded Jesus were not people with comfortable lives who wished to maintain the status quo. Jesus was nothing if not revolutionary. First-century Jews sought the Messiah—a person whom they (wrongly) supposed would overthrow the Roman government and set up a new, dominant Kingdom of Israel—and they hoped Jesus was the person. It is those who desired massive change—either due to famine, or poverty, or mourning, or powerlessness, or sickness—who sought out Jesus.

And so, as Jesus looked out over those huddled masses of the poor and cast-offs of society, what blessings did He offer? He did not promise a change at all, did He? Rather, He pronounced them blessed in their current state. Jesus is saying that those qualities which most people wish to avoid in life, God is actually blessing them even in that state. As my friend Josh Hurlburt (who knows the pain of mourning) has said, “God does not bless you in spite of mourning; He blesses you through the mourning.”

After all, do not forget—the roles of mourner, peacemaker, persecuted, and meek are precisely the roles that Jesus Himself demonstrated during His life. So it should not be surprising that, though it makes little sense to us as humans, it is through these times that we see as suffering that God works His mightiest blessings.

(Aside note: I would like to make one further comment, which has little relevance to the subject of Jesus’ post, but which reaffirms the interpretation that Matthew arranges his teachings topically rather than chronologically, as most scholars agree. Notice two things here. First, if this Sermon happened immediately after His baptism and temptation in the desert, where did all of the crowds come from? He already has a massive following by the time of this sermon. But second, and more importantly—notice His last blessing: “blessed are you when others revile you…on my account.” If this was truly Jesus’ first major teaching, how could any of His followers have been reviled and persecuted? Clearly this collection of teachings is something which spanned His ministry, not something which occurred only once, right at the beginning.)

2. Context for the sermon (Mt 5:13-16)

Having conferred His blessings on the crowd, Jesus says the following to His (entirely orthodox Jewish) audience:

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.“ (Mt 5:13-16, ESV)

This can be considered a statement of the purpose or context of Jesus’ talk. He is about to begin a discussion on the Mosaic Law, to a group of first-century Jews. He refers then to their special place as the Chosen People of God.

Jesus points out that as the Chosen People, the Jews were meant to show God’s glory to the rest of the world, and uses a few analogies to demonstrate it. Like salt, Jesus says, the Jews should be adding flavor and preserving the world. Like a city on a hill, their special status should be visible to all the world. Like a lamp, they should be showing their status to the world.

Implicit in this statement is that Jesus is telling His listeners that the Jewish people have lost their status as a leader among the nations, but instead they were a forgotten afterthought—salt without taste, or a lamp hidden by a basket. Instead of being a shining beacon of God’s power, Israel had become a minor, unimportant province on the outskirts of the Roman Empire.

(Aside note: This section is often taken to refer to Christians (as in the kids song, “This little light of mine”). And that gives me a great opportunity to share that although the Sermon on the Mount is written to Jews on the Mosaic Law, it does have a tremendous applicability to Christianity. Perhaps nowhere in Scripture is the Christian ethic and “spirit” of the Law as clearly stated as in the coming chapters. So though I will speak to Jesus’ primary and present audience throughout this passage, do not mean that this makes it somehow less applicable to the modern Christian—just in slightly different ways and contexts.)

So here, Jesus tells them that Judaism is not where it is supposed to be, and that its influence is lost in the world. This provides a good context, as in the coming passages He is going to tell why they have lost their influence, and how to fix it. So remember this context as you read the coming passages where Jesus expounds on the Mosaic Law—much of what He says is within the context of explaining why and how the Jews have lost their influence in the world.

3. Purpose statement of the sermon (Mt 5:17-20)

Having conferred His blessings on the crowd, and given the context of the modern Jewish state, now Jesus tells the crowd the purpose statement of the sermon:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:17-20, ESV)

Here, Jesus makes His purposive statement, His thesis of the teachings that He is about to give on the Law. He states that the Law is not being abolished, it is being fulfilled in His teachings. Based upon this passage, I see no way around the fact that the Mosaic Covenant remains in effect for Hebrews until the end of time.

Jesus in fact states that not only is He not relaxing the Law with the coming sermon, He is increasing it—He is asking for things that the scribes (Sadducees) and Pharisees are not even achieving today. He says that what He is about to say reinforces and fulfills the Law’s demands by God.


Jesus begins His teachings on the Mosaic Law with a very clear, well-organized approach. He begins by conferring blessings (which we typically call the Beatitudes); then He provides the context of His sermon (the Jews have lost their planned influence in the world); and then He provides the purpose of the sermon (to fulfill the Mosaic Law, not to overturn it).

Next week, we will get into some of His specific teachings on the details of the Mosaic Law.