Jesus Discussion Questions

Matthew 5:1-20 The Jesus who demands much – and gives much

There are two important things to notice initially about this sermon.

Firstly, Jesus is addressing Jews, and therefore the initial application of the sermon is to Jews, to whom Jesus has come as their Messiah. The implications for the ‘rest of the world’ – us, Christians, etc. – are not what we may initially think.

Secondly, this sermon is placed at the beginning of Matthew, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. While Jesus would have taught the same material many times throughout his ministry, Matthew is choosing to highlight this occasion, which is significant for the structure of his Gospel, as we shall see.

The sermon is essentially an unpacking and summary of the Law, given to Israel 1500 years earlier. Jesus is not doing anything unique in this – many Rabbis would have been active in doing the same exercise, each with their own collection of disciples. Their content may have been similar in its themes. Jesus however stands apart from the other teachers in the authority with which he taught (Matthew 7:28-29).

1-12

The Law, given to Israel, was God’s way of entering into a covenant relationship with His people:

‘“I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord”’ (Exodus 6:7-8 ESV)

This was no random act; it was Him acting on the promises made to their ancestor, Abraham, to whom the land was the ‘sign’ that God would bless him, make him into a great nation, and through him bring blessing to all the nations of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3)

‘Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”’ (Genesis 12:1-3 ESV)

blessing thru Israel

Deut. 30:11-20 shows that the Law was given not to bring about oppression, but blessing:

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it? ’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it? ’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-20 ESV)

This is all important background to understanding why Jesus open this sermon on the Law in the way he does – by pronouncing blessings (‘beatitudes’). The sentiments in these blessings are the same as expressed in the OT, particularly the Psalms and Isaiah, of someone who loves God and His Law and is longing for His kingdom to be established. Rather than treating it as a list of rules, the Law is a depiction of someone who is living in a harmonious, loving relationship with God.

The blessings are given in two sets of four, each set highlighting two aspects of knowing God: comfort in suffering, and joy in obedience.

1-4 are pronouncements of ‘good news’ to those who are weighed down with burdens: the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, and the oppressed.

5-8 are promises of reward to those who reflect God’s character: the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, and the practitioners of righteousness. (verses 11-12 are an extra application that was especially appropriate for the original readers of Matthew’s gospel, who at the time were literally being persecuted because of their Christian faith.)

Jesus is in effect saying here: all that Moses, David, and all the prophets is true, and still stands; living in harmony with your God, whose character is displayed in His law, brings blessing!

13-16

Jesus moves from the ‘being blessed’ to the fact that the Jews were called, by virtue of the promises made to Abraham, to be a blessing to the whole world. The two pictures of salt of the earth, and light of the world, convey this sense that the blessing Israel knew was to pervade the world like salt does food, and light a dark room. This is both a reminder of their privileged call as God’s people, and a solemn warning: ‘You say you are God’s chosen people, but are you actually living up to that call? Has your salt lost it saltiness? Has your light been hidden under a basket? Make sure sure you are living up to your high call, because the whole point of you being who you are is that other people – in other nations – may also know and worship your Father as their Father.’

This is where we (all of us who live post-Jesus) fit in this passage – those in the Earth who need salt; those in the world who need light. The promises to Abraham make it very clear – this is to come to us through Abraham’s descendants, the Jews.

What Jesus proceeds to do in the rest of this sermon is to hold up the ‘measuring stick’ of God’s Law, so that it can be seen plainly whether they are truly being the salt and light they are designed to be.

17-20

Jesus makes it clear that he is not bringing anything new here. His is not a different or novel interpretation of the Law, nor is it something that has come to replace or diminish the importance of the Law. Far from introducing a new law, he is simply showing the Law for what it already is, and he will do that by showing how unimaginably high the standards of the Law actually are.

The Scribes and Pharisees – the religious leaders of the day – were considered the religious elite; the supreme example of piety. They were devoted to a meticulous keeping of the laws, and had set out very specific guidelines for making sure people were able to obey every command. They were considered, ‘…as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.’ (Philippians 3:6). Yet later Jesus accuses them:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23-24)

Essentially he is saying that by their legalism they are guilty of 5:19b! So Jesus makes an astounding demand:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20 ESV)!

Jesus is claiming two things:

  1. There is a standard of righteousness that is required by God in order for us to be admitted into the kingdom of God, and
  2. that there is another way to this righteousness than the way of the Pharisees (ie. a meticulous keeping of the rules of the Law)

This way to righteousness is found in verse 17: ‘I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.’ He might have said, ‘I have not come to abolish them but to uphold them,’ or even, ‘to enforce them’. Yet he says ‘fulfill’. In other words, he has not come to make people keep the law, but in order to keep the law himself.

Jesus’ ultimate verdict of whether Israel had lived up to their call was clear. In Matthew 23:13-38 Jesus pronounces not beatitudes, but woes:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to….

“…Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. ’” (Matthew 23:13, 37-39)

The verdict is:

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. (John 1:10-11 NIV)

Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. (John 3:19 NIV)

The Jews’ rejection of Jesus demonstrated their failure to fulfil their mandate to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Israel was promised blessing for obedience to the Law, but cursing for failure to keep it; and while Jesus starts his ministry with the pronouncement of blessing, he ends it with pronouncements of cursing.

In the face of that failure, Jesus declares:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12, see also John 9:5)

Jesus now comes and stands in the place of the whole nation-people of Israel. The Jews had failed to keep the law, and in doing so failed to be light to the world. Jesus in a sense embodies all of Israel in one person – and where they failed, He will succeed.

blessing thru Jesus

So, how does a person attain this ‘righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees and the Scribes’ that is required in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Not by uniting ourselves with Israel or by perfectly keeping the Law, but by being united with Jesus who has perfectly kept the Law on our behalf. He fulfilled the Law not only by living the perfect life we have failed to live, but also by coming under the demands for justice that the Law makes on anyone who has failed to keep the Law – his self sacrifice was the climax of his fulfilment of the Law, and because of it he freely gives us a the gift of his own righteousness, to be received by faith.

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Comments
  1. Phil says:

    Great James.
    I heard of some parallels between the giving of the law (Moses) & Jesus restating the law on the Mount. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
    Coming out of Egypt – Moses & Jesus
    Passing through the water – Red Sea & Jesus Baptism
    Then into the wilderness – Israel 40years, Jesus 40 days
    Giving of the law – By Moses from the Mountain, By Jesus on the Mountain

    Regardless of whether these are just coincidences or have any significance, I am so grateful that He set the law and then kept the law…and I gain life eternal through union with Him.
    What a Saviour…What a Saviour!

    Looking forward to pt2.

    • JK says:

      Thanks Phil.
      I think the parallels between Moses and Jesus are all over the place (meaning plentiful, not disorganised!). Feeding the 5000 and crossing the lake, followed by a discussion about the bread from heaven… ‘Come to Me all who are thirsty, and streams of living water will flow’ on the day of the feast of Tabernacles when water from the rock is remembered… ‘As Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, …when I am lifted up’… ‘This is the Prophet [as promised to Moses] who is to come’ etc etc. Probably Matthew, maybe more than the other gospel, writing to Jews, uses the OT exodus and land conquering imagery a lot, and I believe he uses the phrase, ‘this happened so the scripture would be fulfilled that says…’ more often than the others too.

  2. Arthur Davis says:

    You and I seem to have pretty different understandings of the Sermon, James! In previous posts I thought this had more to do with different angles on grace/law/faith/works. In this case I wonder if it has more to do with Israel.

    Here are a few questions — what do you reckon?

    1. Jesus clearly pronounces God’s ‘No’ to the leaders and the temple system, but are the leaders/temple system identical to Israel/Judaism? If so, what of Jesus’ acceptance of ‘sinners’, his mission to ‘the lost sheep’, his healings as removal of the Deuteronomic curses, his reading of Isaiah in Luke 4, and so on?

    2. I agree that Jesus embodies Israel — that he is the true Israel — but does he really replace Israel?

    3. Jesus is certainly addressing Jews, but more to the point the Sermon on the Mount addresses ‘his disciples’. In what sense are Christians called to follow/embody/obey Jesus’ words?

    • JK says:

      Arthur, thanks for your comment. If you like, when you come back on home assignment, we can hold a mutual stoning…
      Here’s my responses; I hope they match what you intended in your questions:

      1. I think that the leaders and temple system stand as representatives of the people, in the same way that they seem to be in the OT – ie. the nation is judged because of the spiritual corruption of the leaders; and I think God was justified in doing that because the state of the leaders was an accurate indication of the state of the nation.
      When Jesus pronounces the woes in Matthew 23, he focusses on the leaders, but then moves on to speak to ‘Jerusalem’, which I take (I’m happy to be corrected) represents the people as a whole, not just leaders.
      However when the Nation is judged, it did not mean that every individual person was condemned. There were always those who were ‘true Israelites’ in that they lived by faith – ala Hebrews 11. These people are who we meet in the Gospels – either those who were already living by faith and so received Jesus, or those who entered into true faith due to their encounter with Jesus.

      2. I acknowledge that my diagram in particular, and maybe my badly phrased words, could imply that I was saying that the ‘Israel project’ was a failure, so God had to go to Plan B, and fix things up at the last minute. That’s not what I meant, just in case you thought it was. I would say that Jesus ‘replaces’ Israel in a similar way to how a dinner plate replaces a saucepan – the saucepan is necessary and indispensable for the preparation, but it is a means to an end, and once the food is ready to be served, it becomes obsolete, because it cannot fulfill the same function the dinner plate does. So, I would say that God planned/foreknew that National Israel would fail in their mandate, because his purpose was always to send the Messiah to die for sinners.
      I know some people think I (and many others of the generally reformed ilk) are anti-semitic heretics for saying that since Jesus the ‘age’ of national/ethnic Israel has ended, and Jews are no different to any other people group in this Gospel age. But the reason I take that view is because I believe that all Scripture and prophecies find their fulfilment in Jesus, not Israel. My take on ‘all Israel will be saved’ is that ‘Israel’ means all who live by faith in Jesus, Jew and Gentile grafted together.

      3. I think we face all kinds of problems if we view the Sermon as a ‘new law’ for Christians, or as a summary of what the Christian life should look like. For example, I don’t see many one-eyed, one-handed Christians around, and suggesting that I might lose my salvation because I call my brother a fool… That’s why I see the significance of this sermon being right at the beginning of the Gospel accounts – it sets the stage in a sense for why Jesus needed to go to Jerusalem and be crucified. I think Jesus is using the Law in the Reformers’ ‘first’ sense – to show the holiness and perfect righteousness of the Father, highlighting our need for mercy, as none of us will ever be able to achieve a perfection comparable with the Father’s. True, he was teaching his disciples (with an awareness that the crowds were listening in), but they were brand-new, pre-cross disciples. He was laying the foundation for them, so that when they witnessed the cross and resurrection the significance of that event would all ‘make sense’.
      Having said that, that does not exclude Christians from reading the sermon and desiring to see that righteousness expressed in their lives; in fact if we know and love God we will love His law, and it will be sweet as honey. But if we think that our task is now to go out and accomplish something by using it as a template for our lives, we risk falling into self righteousness.

      • Arthur Davis says:

        Hi James

        Yeah, I think it’s tricky with Israel. I’m not really up on the whole supersessionism discussion, but I wonder if many of us are simply, almost by default, functional supersessionists (myself included). However, if Jesus truly sums up, fulfils and completes Israel, I suspect something more is asked of us.

        But (to clarify) I guess the big question here with the Sermon is not so much about whether or how fulfilment happened, but when.

        Was it the cross? As a climax, perhaps. But I’d say that the big distinction is not between pre-cross and post-cross disciples, but between pre-Jesus people and in-Jesus people. As soon as Jesus appeared, everything was different, because it was Jesus speaking and healing and forgiving. The defining event is the person of Jesus in his entirety, incarnation to ascension. The community of Jesus began with Jesus, not afterwards.

        So I do see the Sermon as a portrait of life in Christ. It is ethical teaching, a moral vision. No, I don’t think it is a manual for ‘how to get in’. But I don’t actually think it’s about salvation at all, not in the stereotypically Protestant sense. It is not requirements but a portrait. Yet it is also a demand. Is self-righteousness a risk here? Maybe — but how, I would ask, do we avoid setting up faith and obedience against each other?

        Unless we decouple the Sermon from our concern about legalism, I reckon we can only water down the demand. Jesus’s call for obedience (e.g. the Sermon’s conclusion) is real, and it is directed at his disciples, at us. Yes, we hear it through the cross, not to mention Pentecost and so on, but why should that alter it? And if the Sermon is not evidenced in the life of the church today, doesn’t this just heighten the demand all the more?

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