|Location of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount|
If there is one message that every Christian should know, it’s Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. It’s the clearest example in the Bible of the Way of Jesus: the way that he lived and the way he wants his followers to live, too.
But even though there are many similarities between the Law given on Mt. Sinai and the Messianic Law of Jesus, there are also many differences. For example, at Sinai, the people were not allowed to come on the mountain (Exo. 19:12). Why not? This was a sign of their separation from a holy God: that they were not holy. And when God spoke, they were afraid and didn’t want to hear his voice anymore (Exo. 20:18,19). Why was that? Because as Paul tells us, the Law of Moses was given to a fleshly people, to control the lusts of the flesh (Gal. 3:19, 1 Tim. 1:9,10). It was hard for them to hear. And the Law of Moses was not a law of choice: it was given to them as a requirement with strict penalties for disobedience, many of which were to be enforced by the nation of Israel itself, even including the death penalty.
How is this different than the Sermon on the Mount? In the Sermon on the Mount, the people were allowed up on the mountain with Jesus. He accepted them. This was a sign of their acceptance by God. And they came there because they wanted to hear what Jesus had to say: no one was requiring them to be there. They came because they were concerned about the things of God and wanted to hear his teaching. This is very different than the Law of Moses. The Law of Messiah is a voluntary law. Nobody forces anyone to obey it. It is given to a spiritual people: people who have the inner desire to know God and to serve God, who don’t want to turn away from the voice of God, but who want to hear the voice of God. Of course it’s true that there are consequences for those who reject the Way of Jesus. But most of those consequences are enforced by God, not man.
The Law of Moses, as Paul describes it, is the kind of instruction you give to children: there are just certain things you can and can’t do (Gal. 3:23-25, 4:1,2). They are not open to discussion, and they will be enforced, with punishment if necessary. But the Law of Messiah is different than that. The Law of Messiah is delivered to those who are spiritually mature, whose motivation for serving God is a personal decision that we call faith. This is very different than the Law of Moses.
Another way to think of the difference between these two laws is that the Law of Moses is given to control the outer man, while the Law of Messiah is given to control the inner man. Remember that we spoke once before about Jesus’ teaching about murder. As he reminds us, the Law of Moses said, “You will not murder” (Matt. 5:21). This is an outward action that someone does to another person. It’s something that other people can see. It’s also something that other people can stop: if you see someone trying to kill someone else, sometimes you can stop them. And the penalty for murder in the Law of Moses is death, which is enforced by the community.
But Jesus taught us that we should not even get angry with someone (“But I say to you that everyone who becomes angry with his brother is subject to the court...” Matt. 5:22). Anger is an inner emotion. It’s not something that can always be seen on the outside. But even though it’s something on the inside of us, Jesus said that we need to control it. And of course that means we need to control it ourselves, because nobody can control that for us. Others can help us with our emotions, including the Holy Spirit, but in the end it’s up to us to make a decision about what’s going on in our inner lives.
Another example we looked at before was Jesus’ teaching about adultery. As he reminds us, the Law of Moses says, “You will not commit adultery” (Matt. 5:27). This is referring to an outward action. But Jesus taught that we should not even look at someone with lust in our hearts (“But I say to you, that everyone that looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” Matt. 5:28). This is talking about an inner event. So it’s not only our outward actions that need to be controlled, it’s also our inner thoughts, our inner life that needs to be submitted to God.
This is, in fact, the definition of the New Covenant as opposed to the Old Covenant: the Old Covenant is a covenant written on tablets of stone, while the New Covenant is written on our hearts, as it says in Jer. 31:33: “For this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ says the LORD, ‘I will put my law in their inward parts and on their heart I will write it, and I will be God to them, and they will be a people to me.” (also Heb. 8:10 and 10:16). The old is an outward covenant, the new is an inward covenant.
From a Jewish point of view, what Jesus is doing is building a hedge around the Law. This is what the rabbis would also do in their teaching. For example, if doing A is a sin, but B is something that often leads to A, the rabbis would also forbid B. The idea was to make an additional barrier between you and sin, to keep you from sinning. So for example, since murder is sin, but anger is what leads to murder, Jesus also forbids us to get angry, in order to make a barrier between us and sin. The same with adultery. Since looking with lust sometimes leads to the sin of adultery, Jesus forbids us to look with lust in order to keep us safely away from adultery. This is how the rabbis look at what Jesus was doing.
But actually Jesus was doing more than building a hedge. He was in fact completely changing the priority in holy living from outward actions to inner intentions. In other words, God’s ultimate goal is not just controlling our outward actions, but making us an inwardly holy people. The Law of Moses was just the first step on the road to creating a holy people.
The rabbis also say a lot about inner intentions. If you say a prayer or do a religious action without the right intention, they teach that it is not valid. Jesus agrees with this, but then he takes it to the next level: that the intention of the heart, having the right inner attitude, having a holy spirit, is in fact the goal of religious instruction, which then manifests itself in godly actions. It’s not just doing the right outward actions that’s important, but being the right kind of person on the inside.
So let’s go back and see how Jesus continues to teach this principle in the next section of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matt. 5:33, he reminds us of another of the teachings of the Law of Moses: “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people of ancient times, ‘You will not swear falsely, but you will fulfill your oaths to the Lord (Num. 30:2).’” Oaths were a very big deal in ancient times. There were all kinds of rules and regulations about them. An oath was something that was often made publicly: “I swear by the Temple in Jerusalem that I will be there on that day.” Or, “I swear by Heaven that if I return home safely, I will bring an offering to the Temple.” Other cultures had their oaths, too.
But Jesus said, “But I say to you, do not make an oath at all; either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, nor by the earth, for it is the footstool for his feet (Isa. 66:1), nor by Jerusalem, for it is a city of the great king (Psa. 48:2); nor make an oath by your head, for you are not able to make one hair white or black. But let your word of yes be yes and no no; but that which is more than these is from the evil one” (Matt. 5:34-37). Jesus told us not to make oaths at all. Why?
An oath was an outward expression used to strengthen a person’s word or make it more believable. But Jesus says that we should not do this, because our inner intention should always match up with what we say out loud. We should only say yes if we mean yes, and we should only say no if we mean no. And if that’s true, there’s no need for oaths. (And by the way, if we’re not sure, we should just say we’re not sure, instead of saying yes or no to please someone, and then not following through on it.) We should always be true to our word. Here again, Jesus is giving priority to our intentions over our outward actions, helping us to develop a holy thought life.
Or how about the next one, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (Exo. 21:24)” (Matt. 5:38). What is this talking about? A lot of people misunderstand this Old Testament command, including Gandhi. Maybe you’ve heard his famous quote, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” It sounds very wise and clever from a certain point of view, but it completely misunderstands the Biblical teaching.
In the time that God gave this law, the time of Moses, people were easily caught up in the cycle of revenge. What’s that? Let’s say we were fighting, and you knocked out my eye, I would get so mad, I would come with my friends and burn down your village; and then you would get so mad, you would come make war with your tribe against my tribe. This is the way a lot of wars start. The cycle of revenge starts small but then gets worse and worse, the violence gets greater and greater.
But the law of an eye for an eye says that there is a limit to revenge: you cannot do to me any more than I did to you. If you knocked out my eye, the most I could do to you was to knock out your eye. And from a very early date, this was used to calculate compensation instead, based on how badly the person had been hurt. This was a very advanced and humane concept at the time.
But Jesus takes this idea further when he says: “But I say to you not to resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek to him, too” (Matt. 5:39). Jesus says not to take any revenge at all! To understand this correctly, we need to look at the original context. The original verse in Exodus is talking about two men who get into a fight with each other. And how does this happen? Usually because of something that one of them said. Jesus specifically mentions a slap across the cheek. In his time, this was a form of rebuke, just like the high priest who had Paul slapped on the face (Acts 23:2). So what does Jesus say? If someone rebukes you unjustly, just hold your peace. Don’t take revenge; don’t get into a fight. And if he wants to rebuke you again, let him. Don’t let the fight escalate; instead stop it before it even begins, before it turns into a greater sin. Paul helps us understand this teaching better when he says in Rom. 12:19: “Don’t take vengeance yourselves, beloved, but rather make room for the wrath (of God), for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord (Deut. 32:35, Prov. 20:22).”
Jesus continues, “and to the one who wants to take you to court and take your tunic (your shirt), let him have your cloak (your coat), too” (Matt. 5:40). He wanted to take your tunic, which was usually of lesser value, but let him have your cloak, too, which was usually of greater value. He wants your shirt, let him have your coat, too. Don’t fight back against this kind of personal attack. Don’t resist. Now how can anyone have the attitude that Jesus is telling us to have? Only if you completely believe that God is really going to supply all your needs. They can take away everything you have. But God will supply your needs. To have this attitude, you have to be completely trusting God. You have to be free of the things of this world in your heart.
Jesus continued, Matt. 5:41: “And whoever presses you into service for one mile, go with him two.” This is talking about the Roman law that a soldier walking along the road could require you to carry his backpack for one Roman mile. And how would you know if you had gone one Roman mile? The major roads were all marked with mile markers every mile, just like we do on major highways today. This requirement to carry the backpack was seen as an injustice by the Jewish people. The Romans were an occupying army, an enemy. So the people didn’t like helping them this way, just like we hate it when someone forces us to do something we don’t want to do.
So what does Jesus say? Again Jesus teaches us not to resist this kind of humiliating legal injustice. You should carry the pack. But even though you were only required to carry the pack for one mile, Jesus says you should carry it twice as far. Why? That would be very difficult for people to listen to. They didn’t want to carry it the first mile. Why should they carry it further than they had to? What is Jesus thinking?
Well, if you carry it further than you have to, suddenly you’re no longer carrying it because it’s required, but because you’ve decided to do it. This restores your dignity as a human being: you’re making your own decision and restoring your own control over your life. Second, it completely changes your relationship to the person whose pack you’re carrying. Instead of looking at him as a soldier and an enemy, he now becomes a human being that you’re helping. This makes it possible to start caring about him as a person. And maybe you’ll even have a chance to share with him about Jesus. When he says, “Why are you still carrying my pack? Don’t you know we’ve gone more than a mile?” you can say, “I’m a follower of Jesus, and he told us...” Doing it Jesus’ way suddenly takes all the pressure out of the situation, and changes it from something bad to something good: a testimony of God’s love—even for our enemies.
Matt. 5:42: “Give to the one asking you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow (money) from you.” Freely you have received, freely give. This one’s difficult, too. But as we said once before, Jesus didn’t say how much you have to give. He just said to give something. Have a helpful heart, a giving heart that will encourage the person going through difficult times. Help them out in their time of need.
Matt. 5:43: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.” Where did they hear that? “Love your neighbor” was one of the most important commandments in the Law according to Jesus. Remember when someone asked him, “What is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36). And he said that the first and greatest command was: “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). And then he went on to say that the second most important commandment was: “You will love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39).
But what about “hate your enemy”? Where had they been taught that? The closest thing to it in the Bible is probably in Psalm 139:22, where the Psalmist says that he hates those who hate God: “With complete hatred I have hated them; they are as enemies to me.” But aside from this, and a couple of other similar verses about hating the wicked in Psalms, hating your enemy is not really taught in the Bible. So where had the people heard this before? It sounds more like something the Essenes were teaching. This is the community that is famous for copying the Dead Sea scrolls. In the Essene Manual of Discipline (i,1-) it says: “Everyone who wishes to join the community must pledge himself to respect God and man...to love all that he has chosen—and hate all that he has rejected...; to love all the children of light...and to hate all the children of darkness.”
Instead, Jesus taught, “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those persecuting you” (Matt. 5:44). As always, Jesus is turning the world upside down. How can we live that way? Only if we have really given over our lives completely to God, and the things of God are more important to us than even our own lives.
Matt. 5:45: “that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven, for his sun rises on the evil and the good and he sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous.” God does good to everyone, and so should we. Does this include these horrible fanatical Muslims like ISIS that we hear so much about in the news lately? Well, are they our enemies? Yes. So Jesus said that we should love them. How can we do that? Only if we know that our lives in this world are not all there is to life, but that this is just the doorway to eternity. And if we can win someone to the truth, even if we suffer personal harm, it’s worth it. After all, that’s what Jesus did. He gave his life that we might have life, and he wants us to do the same. How could he do that? Because God was always with him, and God will always be with us.
Matt. 5:46: “For if you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Do not the tax collectors also do the same?” Even wicked people love those that love them. But if you really want to be like God, you must also love those who do not love you, and even those who hate you.
Matt. 5:47: “And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Don’t the Gentiles also do the same?” Everybody greets those that are close to them. But Jesus wants us to reach out to include those that are not in our close groups of friends.
Matt. 5:48: “Therefore you will be blameless as your heavenly Father is blameless.” What does this mean? Many translations use the word “perfect” here: that we should be “perfect” as our heavenly Father is “perfect.” That’s a very discouraging verse to many people. How can we be perfect like God? But that’s not what this verse is saying. It comes from Deut. 18:13, which says, “You will be tamim before the LORD your God.” The word tamim means blameless, and that is also the correct translation in Matthew: we should be without moral blame. It doesn’t mean that we never make typing mistakes or never sing off pitch. But it does mean we should be morally pure, and pure in our attitudes toward others, even the wicked. This matches what Jesus has been teaching in this section: to be like God, loving and doing good even to our enemies, greeting even those who are not our brothers.
Matt. 6:1: “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness (tzedekah in Hebrew) before men to be seen by them; but if not, you have no reward with your Father who is in the heavens.” This verse may seem contradictory to what Jesus said earlier in Matt 5:16: “Let your light shine before people that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in the heavens.” This makes it sound like Jesus wants us to do our good deeds in public. So why does he seem to say the opposite in Matt. 6:1?
The problem here is with the translation of the word “righteousness,” tzedekah in Hebrew. While this word often does mean “righteousness” in the ordinary way we think of it, it also has a specialized meaning. That specialized meaning is ‘giving to the poor,’ which is exactly what Jesus is talking about here. So when he says, “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them,” he means that you should not advertize it when you give to the poor.
But why? Why is this particular type of righteous action different than others? The rabbis give us the answer: they say it’s to avoid bringing shame on the person we are helping. We give to the poor secretly so that they will not be embarrassed and “lose face” by having it be revealed to others that they are poor and in need. This is the Biblical idea that all of God’s children deserve respect and should be treated as human beings. It’s also a reminder that the Jewish people are often much better at this than we Gentile Christians are, and that we have much to learn from them about charitable giving. The early churches provided for the needs of widows and orphans and others. We need to learn from them, too.
Matt. 6:5,6: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who like to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners that they may be seen by men; amen I say to you, they have received their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father, the one seeing in secret, will reward you.” Here’s another righteous deed that Jesus tells us to keep quiet. But why were people praying on the street corners? Perhaps they were saying blessings on entering or leaving the city, or on seeing something remarkable, for which they also said blessings to God. The point, though, is that some people only pray in public to look good, to look religious, and not because of a heartfelt relationship with God. Jesus tells us that we shouldn’t be like that. This doesn’t mean that Jesus is forbidding public prayer. But he is telling us to check our motives. If we expect any kind of reward for praying, that comes only from private prayer, when nobody but God can see us.
Matt. 6:7: “But when you are praying, don't babble on and on, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that because of their many words they will be heard.” The effectiveness of a prayer is not measured by the number of words spoken, but by the depth of the faith with which it is uttered. This is what surprised people about Jesus. When he prayed for the sick, he said very few words at all: To the paralytic he said, “Rise, take up your pallet and go home” (Mark 2:11). And the man was healed. To the man with the withered hand, he said, “Stretch our your hand” and the man was healed (Mark 3:5). Jesus didn’t waste time with words. When he spoke, he meant what he said, and then he was done. He didn’t try to stretch it out longer. “So don't be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8). Of course, sometimes you really do need to pray for a while. But don’t stretch it out just to make it “look good.”
The prayer Jesus gave us to pray is the same way: short and sweet. This is the prayer we often call the Lord’s Prayer, but in fact, it’s a prayer for us, his disciples, to say. This prayer is a short summary of the prayers that religious Jews say every day, known today as the Eighteen Benedictions or Blessings. There were fewer of them in Jesus’ day—probably seven or so. In their original form, these benedictions take quite a while to say. Each one is a full sized paragraph in length. So the rabbis would sometimes give their disciples a shorter form of the prayers to say when they didn’t have time to say them all. And that’s what Jesus did, too.
The beautiful thing about this prayer is that it shows us what our prayer priorities should be in a short, easy to remember form. How does it start? “Our Father who is in the heavens...” (Matt. 6:9a). Jesus teaches us to pray to the Father God, not to himself. We mentioned this once before.
It continues: “may your name be made holy” (Matt. 6:9b). What does this mean? We’re praying that people will treat God’s name as holy, which also means that they will treat God himself as holy: that they will respect God for who he is. Why would we want to pray this way? Because a place or a nation where God is respected as holy is going to be a blessed nation. And a place where God is not respected as holy is going to experience great difficulties, because they are in rebellion against God. To pray that God’s name be made holy is really a prayer that more and more people will come to know the living God, that the knowledge of the Lord will spread around the earth.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done; as in heaven, also on earth” (Matt. 6:10). This is really a prayer for the Messianic kingdom to come. Only then will God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. But it can also start being done right now in the hearts and lives of his followers.
What’s next? “Give us today our necessary portion of bread” (Matt. 6:11). This refers to the amount of bread required to survive a day, so it can also be translated ‘daily bread.’ Do you know where this comes from in the Old Testament? It comes from Proverbs 30:8: “Don’t give me poverty or riches; provide me my portion of bread.” It’s an allusion to the manna in the wilderness in the time of Moses, when they received just what they needed for each day. This verse may come as a shock to those promoting the prosperity gospel. Rather than asking God for wealth, the Bible says we’re supposed to pray that God will not make us rich! Why?
Prov. 30:9a: “lest I be full and deal falsely and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’” The biggest danger of success is the thought that you’ve done it all yourself, without God’s help. ‘Who is the Lord? I’m the one who has provided all this for myself.’ And so you will no longer fear and respect God. This is why the great majority of giving to Christian ministries comes from people who are not rich. Those who face their own financial difficulties have more compassion on others who are also facing financial difficulties. Those who are rich rarely feel the same compassion.
In fact, the rich are more likely to oppress the poor, as it says in James 2:6,7: “Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme the good name by which you have been called?” What name is that? The name of Jesus. According to the New Testament, riches are part of the problem in this world. “Listen my beloved brothers, hasn't God chosen the poor with regard to the world, yet who are rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5). Do you want to be among those called by God and heirs to his kingdom? Then pray as it says in Proverbs: Lord, don’t make me rich. Give me my daily bread: just what I need, no more.
But that doesn’t mean we want to be destitute. We should also pray: “Don’t give me poverty... lest I be poor and steal and seize on the name of my God (do violence to the name of God)” (Prov. 30:9b). Lord, don’t make me so poor that I will be desperate and be tempted to use the name of God falsely: like having to lie with a false oath about having stolen food. Lord, don’t make us either rich or poor. Just “give us today our necessary portion of bread.” That is a life of true faith: believing God for each day. Is that how you live, trusting God one day at a time? Then you know exactly what Jesus is talking about. It keeps you humble and keeps you close to God.
What’s next? “And forgive us what we owe (because of sins that we have done), as we, too, have forgiven those that owe us (because of sins that they have done)” (Matt. 6:12). When we sin against someone, we incur a debt; we create an obligation toward that person to pay them back with good to make up for the bad we have done. It’s the same when we sin against God, we owe God. Forgiving others—releasing them from that debt—is especially important, because as Jesus adds after the prayer: “For if you forgive people their sins, your Father in heaven will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive people, neither will your Father forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:14,15). If you want to be released from the debt of your sin, you need to forgive others, too.
And what’s the last part of the prayer? “And do not bring us into temptation (or testing), but deliver us (rescue us) from evil (or we could translate this ‘the evil one’)” (Matt. 6:13). We should ask God to keep us far from evil.
In later manuscripts, a final sentence was added to this prayer. “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Where did this come from? No one’s completely sure. But it’s similar to one of the responses to prayer used in the Temple in Jesus’ day: “Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever.” It’s just possible that the traditional ending of our Lord’s Prayer preserves an ancient Temple blessing.
There’s still quite a bit left of the Sermon on the Mount. God willing, we’ll return to it another time.
What have we learned today?
1) Don’t make an oath.
2) Don’t take revenge.
3) Don’t resist personal attacks, including legal attacks.
4) Go the extra mile.
5) Be generous to those in need.
6) Love your enemy.
7) Don’t only greet your friends.
8) Give to the poor secretly.
9) The kind of prayer that gets a reward is secret prayer.
10) Longer prayers are not better.
11) Pray to the Father.
12) Pray for his will to be done everywhere.
13) Pray not to be rich or poor, but for our daily bread.
14) Forgive others to be forgiven.
15) Pray to avoid temptation.
Let’s pray: Father God, thank you for sending Jesus to tell us how to live. Help us to understand his words, and live by them in our lives. Help us especially with the ones that are difficult for us, that we will learn to trust you to provide everything we need in life. And we thank you in Jesus’ name.