Posts Tagged ‘Sermon on the Mount’

(Image from sacredsandwich.com)

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. Matthew 5:13-16

The images of salt and light are often referred to by preachers who are trying to spur their people into action by living out their faith in the world. Salt and light are a reference to our good living, they say, which will serve to proclaim the Gospel even if we don’t get to use words.

The connection between light and works is there – although I don’t think it means, ‘Do your good works in a way that people will notice them.’ It’s more about the Father getting the credit, not us.

But salt?

I’ve never been convinced by the two most common explanations for this reference to salt: That it adds flavour, and that it is a preservative. Both are used to teach that Christians, by having a faithful presence in the world, will have a ‘flavoursome’ and ‘preserving’ effect on our culture, and that our good work will contribute to the common good.

It is certainly true that the Judeo-Christian ethic has had a positive effect on cultures in which the Gospel has been preached and received. And this positive effect is often referred to by those seeking to defend our society against the current moral decay.

But I’m still not convinced that this is what Jesus meant. I feel a little as if it’s imposing our modern experiences – after 2000 years of western history – on the text.

Looking through the Old Testament (Jesus’ primary text – on which he based all his teaching!), there are multiple references to salt. If we ignore those that are references to geography (eg. the ‘Salt Sea’, the ‘Valley of Salt’), there are two main types of references to salt:

1. As a picture of judgement. We are all familiar with Lot’s wife who turned into salt at the judgement of Sodom. (Genesis 19:26). A salty land unable to grow crops was considered cursed (Deuteronomy 29:23), and defeated cities were ‘sown with salt’ (Judges 9:45) to signify their barrenness.

2. As a sign of the covenant. Salt was used throughout the Tabernacle sacrificial system. It was in the incense (Exodus 30:35) that symbolised the prayers of the people; and all offerings were to be seasoned with salt, from grain right through to animals; it was, ‘the salt of the covenant with your God,’ which was not to, ‘be missing.’ (Leviticus 2:13, cf. Ezekiel 43:24). The Priests were told that the parts of sacrifices they were to eat were, ‘…a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and for your offspring with you.’ (Numbers 18:19). David and his descendants’ position of kingship over Israel was given, ‘by a covenant of salt.’ (2 Chronicles 13:5). Elisha, in his first miraculous act after succeeding Elijah, put salt into the water supply of Jericho to heal the water and make it fresh (1 Kings 2:19-22) – one of the signs demonstrating that he was a Man of God, bringing the Word of the Lord to His people.

We’re not told exactly why salt was to be used in this way, but it’s fair enough to assume that if the only other significance of salt was judgement & curse, then its use in the sacrificial system signified the judgement that was to fall upon the sacrifice in the worshipper’s place; in that sense, salt signifies the work of atonement that is at the heart of the establishment of the covenant between God and His people.


Back to Jesus now, on the side of a hill, telling Jewish people – whose faith was centred around the sacrificial system in the temple – that they are to be ‘salt of the earth’. What would their minds immediately have gone to, if not the, ‘salt of the covenant with your God’?

They were to be the means by which the covenant made with Abraham their father, would become a covenant with those from every tribe, tongue and nation. When God told Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him, he was talking about covenant – since blessing is a covenantal term.

Their very existence as an ethnic, political and religious group was for the purpose of the covenant coming to you and me – or should I say, you and I being brought into the covenant, to be included along with Abraham and all his children. ‘The Earth’ and ‘The World’ are references to the Gentiles who would be gathered from every nation through the Gospel going out in the Spirit’s power. So 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. (In Isaiah 42:6 tells God’s people that they are to be a light to the nations – a sign of the covenant.)

Israel was supposed to be this covenant salt, but failed in their mandate. And they were always going to fail – it was God’s purpose that they as a nation should fail, because His plan from the beginning was to bring forth from this broken, failed and sinful people the True Israelite, His Beloved First Born Son (see Exodus 4:22), the Great High Priest who would offer the perfect sacrifice, seasoned with the real – not symbolic – salt of God’s judgement, in order to confirm the ‘covenant of salt’ not only with Jews but with all who would have faith in Him.

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Matthew 7:1-29 To Sumarise…

1-5 ‘Don’t judge me!!’

Many people quote the first half of verse 1 without knowing (or ignoring) the second half. Jesus is describing a principle of the Law: reciprocity. We will sow what we reap. We saw this earlier in 5:38-42 where the law says, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ This was not a license to take revenge on someone who hurts us, but a mandate for us to (over)compensate those whom we hurt; the motive is love for our neighbour, and a desire to live with generosity towards them.

When Jesus was confronted with a group of angry men who wanted to stone a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), his response was, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her (v.7). HIs point: If we recognise sin in another person, we must be willing to recognise that we are no better than them; the judgement we pronounce on them is what we equally deserve for our sin – regardless of whether it is identical to theirs or not.

So Jesus is not saying that it’s wrong to make an assessment of an action, deciding whether it is right or wrong. Rather he is saying that, according to the standard of the Law in which one must be perfect as our Father in heaven, the only thing that qualifies one to judge is that they be without sin. That, after all, is why God has the right to judge the whole earth: because He is Holy and without unrighteousness.

The term, ‘or you will be judged’ is a ‘divine passive’. Because it does not mention the subject (doer), the implication is that it is an act of God. This is no mere ‘karma’ or an impersonal, natural law of ‘what goes around, comes around,’ but the action of God, with a judgement that is moral and personal. How dare we presume to be the judge of another person, when we too will one day stand before the judgement seat of God?

Again, the Law has backed us into a corner. If we use this principle to tell someone who has rebuked or questioned us, ‘Do not judge me,’ we immediately become guilty of breaking this law, because we have judged their action of judging as wrong! The solution to this dilemma is to give up on our efforts to gain righteousness by the law, and instead turn to Jesus, who gives us what the Law cannot: perfect righteousness.

Jesus then illustrates this principle by telling what some suggest is the closest we get to a joke in the Gospels. The word does literally mean plank or log, and is hyperbole designed to emphasise the hypocrisy of taking the moral high ground (Very often our hypocrisy is evident to all but ourselves – which is why it is such a blessing when fellow Christians love us enough to rebuke us for it). The point here is not the action in itself, but the attitude with which it is done; once we have recognised the log of our own sin, repented and received forgiveness, we will then be enabled to come in love and humility to another person and remove their speck. So again, this is a matter of the heart. This if further illustrated in the next verse.

6 Dogs and Pigs

This verse has bemused many people, both because it seems to interrupt the flow of the passage. The difficulty is that Jesus is using images that are foreign to our modern sensibilities, and if they were colloquialisms, they are ones about which we know little or nothing outside the New Testament.

Some have taken it to mean ‘Don’t bother sharing the Gospel with those who are belligerent and openly reject it; you will be wasting your time.’ However that interpretation ignores the context – Jesus is not speaking here about Gospel proclamation, but about the moral demand of the Law on a person. To be true to the context, we must understand these saying as having something to do with hypocrisy and judging others (vss 1-5).

Most commentators suggest that Jesus is offering a balance to his teaching a few verses earlier on not judging; that while we should not be judgemental, there are times we need to be discerning. To me this does not fit the flow and context of this section of Jesus’ exposition of the Law, in which he is emphasising the extremely high personal moral standard that the Law requires. Would he really say ‘do not judge’, and then give us permission to consider a person a ‘dog’ or a ‘pig’?

For the Jew, there were many unclean animals, but among the most dirty of these unclean animals were pigs and dogs; so much so that ‘dog’ was used as a name of contempt for people or groups of people they did not like, such as Gentiles or Samaritans (See Matthew 15:26).

What is going on in the heart of a person who ‘gives what is sacred to dogs’ or ‘throws their pearls to pigs’?

Jesus is speaking of a state of the heart; one where I see myself on high moral ground, and others as inferior. To ‘cast pearls before pigs’ or ‘give what is holy to dogs’ is to do something that highlights and advertises that distinction between me and them, so that I can be confirmed in my superiority. I can then say, ‘See what they did to my pearls? They just trampled on them! That shows that they are nothing but dirty, unclean pigs! Why should I waste my time with them?’ or, ‘Did you hear what that person said to me when I gently and lovingly spoke the truth to them? Their angry, spiteful response shows them to be the dog that they really are. I am much better than that!’

Jesus in his death and resurrection saves us from all of this complicated, destructive and chaotic thinking. He came to us whom he, as the Holy righteous Judge, could by rights call ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’. He took on our humanity, and bore all our sins of judgmentalism and superiority in his body at the cross. His verdict upon us of ‘no condemnation’ (Romans 8:1) sets us free to view others in the same way; even to be willing to fulfil the command to love our ‘enemies’.

What follows is a series of concluding and summarising statements, which capture the nature of all that Jesus has been teaching in this sermon.

7-12 Know that your purpose for living is to know and reflect your Father

God is a generous Father who loves to give to His children. We should be confident to come to him with all our needs, not thinking that we need to earn our way into His favour by our performance.

Having this relationship with the Father will result in a life that reflects His character – which is shown clearly in the Law: do for others what you would have them do for you.

Known as the ‘Golden rule,’ this principle is claimed by some to be at the heart of all religions. Yet, as the table shows, the religions of the world have some statements that look similar, but are actually quite different; they either teach doing good as a way to have good done to you (Taoism), restrict it to those within the faith (Islam), or phrase it in the negative (all others), which simply means a passive ‘avoiding doing something that will harm people’ rather than a pro-active ‘seek to love and do good to others.’

Golden Rule

13-14 Make sure you are on the right path.

Jesus has been showing right through this sermon the human impossibility of being ‘saved’ by our own efforts or goodness. The view that ‘All religions ultimately lead to the same place’ has to be based on this idea, since most religions teach that salvation is through works. Christianity alone teaches that God alone is the one who saves, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Jesus himself said:

“Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John 10:7-9 NIV)

In our cultural climate, saying Jesus is the only way sounds narrow minded and arrogant. However, saying all religions lead to God is actually a very arrogant thing to claim: firstly, in order to make that claim one must have detailed, full understanding of all the religions to be able to make the assessment that they are compatible; secondly, it rests on the assumption that I am good enough to make it – I don’t need to be saved by grace alone.

15-23 Don’t be duped

The main reason why our culture rejects the idea of Jesus as the only way is because it necessarily implies that other paths are wrong; and if they are wrong those who teach them and follow them are also wrong. Yet this is a necessary implication of the Gospel. If we believe something to be the Truth, we must also reject other ideas as being untrue. If Jesus is the Truth, then anyone who teaches or offers a way different to him is not just presenting another option, but is actually deceiving people. What does he mean by ‘fruit’? Other places where this word is used shows us that this refers to the character and lifestyle of the one who claims to be teaching God’s truth, and the character and lifestyle of those whom they teach. Does their teaching produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:22)?

Jesus states that these ‘false prophets’ are not only wrong, but will face judgement for the damage they cause in people’s lives. They may profess to know God and speak the truth of His word, but this does not mean that they are doing the will of the Father. SO what does it mean to do the will of the Father?

‘…this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.’ (John 6:40 ESV)

24-27 Build your life on the right foundation

God is depicted in the scriptures a the One who both sends the storms of judgement on those who oppose Him (eg. Jeremiah 23:19, Jonah 1:4), and the one who rescues His people from the storms. (Psalm 107:23-32, Matthew 8:23-27). This is the imagery that Jesus is drawing on here. Jesus is the only place of refuge from both the storms of life, and the storm of God’s judgement that all people rightly deserve. A life that’s built on anything less than his words offers no security from either.

So this is both a warning and a promise. To those who reject Him, Jesus says there will be no security, either in this life or the next; however to the one who places their trust in Him, there is a deep assurance that He is able to save, and keep safe.

Discuss please:
I don’t sit right with the popular interpretation of Matthew 7:6:

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:6 NIV).

Most commentators suggest (and ‘suggest’ is the pivotal word, because many of them say that they are not sure), that Jesus is offering a balance to his teaching a few verses earlier on not judging and taking the plank out of our own eye before we take the speck from our brother’s eye; that while we should not be judgemental, there are times we need to be discerning. To me this does not fit the flow and context of this section of Jesus’ exposition of the Law, in which he is emphasising the extremely high personal moral standard that the Law requires. Would he really say ‘do not judge’, and then give us permission to consider a person a ‘dog’ or a ‘pig’ – for a Jew the dirtiest of the unclean animals, and words they would use when speaking contemptuously of gentiles or Samaritans?

The difficulty with this text is that Jesus is using images that are foreign to our modern sensibilities, and if they were colloquialisms, they are one about which we know little or nothing outside Matthew’s gospel.

So, here is my alternative take on this. I’m putting it out there in case anyone has heard this interpretation before, and/or so I can be told if this is heresy or twisting the text:

Jesus is speaking of a state of the heart, one where I see myself on a high moral ground, and others as inferior. To ‘cast pearls before pigs’ or ‘give what is holy to dogs’ is to do something that highlights and advertises that distinction between me and them, so that I can be confirmed in my superiority. I can then say, ‘See what they did to my pearls? They just trampled on them! That shows that they are nothing but dirty, unclean pigs! Why should I waste my time with them?’ or, ‘Did you hear what that person said to me when I gently and lovingly spoke the truth to them? Their angry, spiteful response shows them to be the dog that they really are. I am much better than that!’

Now, I have not come across this interpretation either on the web or in books, and I do not presume to have discovered some new revelation that the church of 2000 yeas has missed. Yet it seems to me that this best fits the flow of verses 1-5.

What do you think?

Seek forst the Kingdom

 

Matthew 6:19 – 34 Do you have a stingy god?

Seeing God face-to-face

Jesus has been highlighting the fact that knowing the Father is at its core a relational thing, rather than a works thing. Any relationship that is based on works or performance is not an authentic relationship; or at least not an intimate, personal one.

Three times in the last section Jesus used the phrase, ‘…your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ (Matthew 6:4). He has demolished the idea that God can be manipulated to ‘pay us back’ for our good works’ and painted the picture of God Who is our Father, who treats us as children to whom he loves to give good gifts, and to whom we may relate in a one-to-one context. Exodus 33:11 speak of God coming to Moses, when he went into the ‘Tent of Meeting’ and ‘The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.’ (Exodus 33:11). At that point this was the exclusive privilege of Moses; yet the New Testament speaks of believers in Jesus as entering into this experience in some way: ‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4:6), and of the sure hope we have that one day there will be a ‘full unveiling’: ‘ For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.’ (1 Corinthians 13:12).

This terminology of Jesus, about the Father seeing what is done in secret conveys this idea: to live as one intimately and fully known by God, and to have the knowledge of His knowledge shape and enrich our lives.

This section flows out of this: what is the expected response of someone to this assurance of God as their Father?

19-21 Where is your treasure?

Jesus contrasts storing up earthly treasure against storing up heavenly treasure. He is not saying that earthly possessions are bad in and of themselves; it is the ‘storing up’ of these treasures in the hope that they will fulfill our needs. This is also a direct challenge to a popular idea that the Jews had, that material prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing, which is upon you because of your good performance in doing ‘righteous’ acts. This idea came from a wrong understanding of the Old Testament Law, in which God promises blessing for obedience, and cursing for disobedience; and hence a poor or suffering person was assumed to have some hidden sin that God was punishing, while a wealthy person was assumed to be in God’s good books. However, these promises were given to the nation corporately; they were never intended to be a ‘prosperity gospel’ for individuals to aim to become rich by observing all the right religious requirements.

What are these ‘treasures in heaven’? It’s important to understand that ‘heaven’ here is not speaking of a place or geographical location, or even a destination we go to when we die. Because the Jews had a prohibition on speaking the name of God (to safeguard themselves from breaking the 3rd commandment ‘Do no use the name of the Lord your God in vain’), they would use a number of  euphemisms to speak indirectly of God, and ‘Heaven’ was one of these. So, in most instances Matthew record Jesus as speaking about ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’, whereas other Gospels have him saying ‘the Kingdom of God’. (Eg. See Matthew 5:3,10,19,20). So the phrase ‘treasures in heaven’ actually means, ‘treasures with God’. This is not a statement about things, but about a person; it’s now about what we have, but whom we know. This means the contrast is not really earthly vs. heavenly, but stuff vs. person.

So if your heart is wherever you treasure is, where is your heart? With that which you treasure the most! Jesus goes on to explain this.

22-23 How’s your eye?!?

This section may seem like an interruption to the flow of the passage. He speaks of earthly treasure in 19-21, and then warns about having money as your master in 24, what is this illustration about the eye have to do with it?

The answer is it’s not an illustration, but simply a phraseology which when translated literally into English needs some explanation. In Matthew 20:-16 Jesus tells a parable about workers who are employes at various times through the day, but at the end of the day they all receive the same wage. Those who work all day complain because those who only worked an hour receive the same as them. The employer’s response is:

‘Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:15)

A more literal translation of the last bit is ‘Is your eye bad because I am good?’ A ‘bad eye’ is one that has a stingy outlook; that does not recognise – and is not willing to recognise – the generosity of another, especially God. It views what I have as something to which I have a right, and can demand, rather than as a free, generous gift from God, given to me even though I don’t even deserve it.

This is the idea that Jesus is conveying here. The secret to being ‘full of light’ is in the way we see and understand who God is and how He relates to us.

If we apply this principle to our culture today, it is no surprise that we are a society that is obsessed with rights. The rights of an individual will normally override any notion of moral or theological truth, to the extent that any belief which is seen to possibly threaten my ‘right’ to do as I please is seen as a wrong belief. Is this symptomatic of a culture that has no sense of thankfulness to the Creator?

24 No fence-sitting possible

Unless we think we can sit on the fence, or have a foot in both camps – using God as a means to gain material prosperity or advantage, or thinking that somehow the Christian faith is compatible with a materialist worldview, Jesus makes it very clear. Our loyalty can only be in one place, to one person or thing. And that person to whom we are devoted will be our master – the one we will serve. We may think that money/wealth is simply a means to making life easy, but if it is our focus it will actually master us, because we will submit ourselves to its principles and demands.

25-32 So what would you rather? 

An impersonal master (money/ material wealth) that will require you to submit to its demands with no guarantee that you will get what you want, that will demand all your resources and energy, and in the end give you nothing that you can take with you beyond the grave; or a Father who knows what you need without you asking, who delights to give you exactly what you need (even it it may not be what you want), in whose eyes you are much more valuable than the birds and the flowers, and whose reward it not stuff but Himself – a reward that lasts for eternity?

33-34 A demand and a promise.

The Law demands that we find our full and only satisfaction in God Himself, and that we live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. Anything less than this is sub-standard living; and is dishonouring to God because it says that there is something else that is better or greater or more satisfying than Him. This is the third ‘unattainable’ demands Jesus has made in this sermon. He began by telling us we need to be better than the Pharisees (5:20), then he said we need to be as perfect as God Himself (5:48), and now that we should think about nothing by God’s Kingdom and doing what He commands. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ does not mean, ‘make it number one on your list of priorities, before career, financial security, finding the right partner, etc.’, rather it means ‘make it your sole focus; your consuming passion; and see anything else you may receive from the hand of the Father as a bonus.’

Yet for those who recognise that they are unable to live up to the demands of the law, and so put their trust in Jesus who has fulfilled the law in his life and death, this gives a wonderful security and assurance.

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)

True contentment that comes from knowing the Father ultimately has nothing to do with how much stuff I have, because it is not about accepting what we have or don’t have, but rather being overwhelmed with the riches we have in Him.

There is only one place we have to seek the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and we are guaranteed that if we seek there we will find it, because it is not a place, but a person. The Kingdom of God is embodied and established in Jesus Christ, who is God’s appointed king; to be a citizen of the Kingdom means being in relationship with him. Likewise the righteousness of God is found in Jesus, not through a diligent adherence to the demands of the law, but by receiving the free gift of God’s righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus’ death on our behalf and his resurrection from the dead.

 

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.

‘Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious…’ (Matthew 6:25, also in 6:31&34)

There are three ways we need to hear this statement:

1. We need to hear it as a Command.

The context of Jesus’ words is the Sermon on the Mount. Contrary to popular view, the purpose of the sermon is not to give a list of instructions for Christians to follow, as if Christianity is summed up by living in line with Jesus’ teachings. Jesus here (and this is most likely only one of many times that he delivered a sermon like this) is expounding the Law. As a Rabbi, this was one of his roles. He says in 5:17 onwards, that he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it, and goes on to affirm every ‘iota’ and ‘dot’ of the law, stating that the law’s standard of righteousness is required for entry into the kingdom of heaven – and that it is actually higher than the scribes and Pharisees make it out to be! (5:20). He tells us what that standard is in 5:48: ‘You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ and in 7:14, ‘The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.’

At the conclusion of this sermon in Matthew 7:28-29 we are told, ‘…the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.’ Often this is explained by pointing out that the other teachers would only quote from other teachers and scholars, whereas Jesus would declare, ‘But I say to you.’ However, while this may have been the case, I don’t think this is what the people meant. Jesus’ teaching had hit them with the full force of God’s authority; they saw in this sermon the holiness and righteousness of God and His law in a way that their leaders had failed to convey – it was truly a righteousness that exceeded that of the Pharisees.

We think of the Pharisees as legalistic, and they were. They thought that they could achieve righteousness by the Law, and so they set out to meticulously follow it, treating it like an exam in which they could tick the boxes and say ‘I’ve done that one.’ However by doing this, they actually demeaned and diminished the law by making it seem achievable by human effort. They placed heavy burdens on those who, unlike them, did not have the means and opportunities to do all that they said was required to fulfill the law, but in their eyes they themselves were doing fine, an example to all of one who truly loves God and with whom God must be pleased. Thus Jesus charged them with ‘…making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.’ (Mark 7:13)

Jesus pulls the rug out from under their feet in this sermon. If the standard of legalistic righteousness of the Pharisees was above most people’s heads, Jesus comes and shows that the standards of the law are much higher even than that – they are beyond the ceiling! When he mentions the command not to commit adultery (5:27-28) many would have said to themselves, ‘I have kept that one.’ But then he says that even lustful thoughts are adultery, essentially incriminating anyone there who was not a eunuch! He uses the same standard when he calls anger murder, remarriage after divorce adultery, swearing oaths evil; when he calls us love our enemies, to hide our spiritual disciplines, like giving fasting and praying, from others; and when he calls love of money hatred of God, judging other hypocrisy, and fathers who know how to give gifts to their children as evil in comparison to God the Father.

Romans 3:20 tells us, ‘For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.’ Jesus is not teaching us the full extent of the law so that we, by following it, might become good Christians. He is doing it so that we will see how far short of the perfection of our heavenly Father we fall. Later in Romans Paul says,

‘…if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:7-13 ESV)

Paul realised, when hearing the command, ‘Do not covet,’ that he was a covetous person, full of greed, envy and hypocrisy. The Law showed him up for the sham that he was. He goes on in Romans 7 to talk about the battle in his conscience, as he does what he knows he should not do, and doesn’t do what he knows he should do, and wrestles with the fact that he knows the law is good, yet he lives as a slave to sin. His conclusion to all this – ie. the work of the law in him – is to say, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (7:24)

In the same way, Jesus’ teaching on the Law shows me up. He tells me that lustful thoughts are adultery, so that I will see that I am an adulterer, filled with lust and ungodly desires; he tells me that anger is murder, so that I will see that I am a murderous, selfish person who lives for myself instead of others; He tells me my ‘spiritual life’ must be simple and private, so that I will see that I am craving the attention and approval of others in order to affirm my own sense of self righteousness.

And he tells me not to be anxious; not to worry about what I eat or wear, or about what will happen tomorrow. Why? So that I may see that I am a person full of anxieties and fears and doubts and uncertainties; a person who does not love the Lord my God with all my heart, and who rarely trusts in Him, but depend rather on my arrogant self sufficiency.

Back in Romans 7, Paul’s statement in 7:25, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ is not the answer or solution to his battle. The answer does come a couple of verses later in 8:1, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ – but in 7:25 he is not giving thanks for Jesus Christ. He is giving thanks for the realisation of who he – Paul – is! ‘Thanks be to God that I am a wretched man who needs to be delivered from this deadly battle that is waging within me because of the action of this holy, righteous and good law!’ Until we see our desperate need for deliverance, we will not see Jesus as the good deliverer. It is a good and right place to be, when we come to the end of ourselves – all our self righteousness and all our self-help schemes – and say that the only hope I have is that someone will step into my mess and rescue me because I am helpless and hopeless, a slave to sin and dead to God.

John Newton is reported to have said at the end of his life, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” The two go hand in hand. So we first of all need to hear, ‘Do not be anxious,’ as a command, so that then we will be able to appreciate it in the second way:

2. We need to hear it as a statement of one who has Compassion.

By compassion, I do not mean that Jesus ‘feels for us’. Rather, the world literally means, ‘suffer together with’. Remember that Jesus said, ‘I come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it’? That means that he has not simply stood at a distance and shouted the demand of the Law at us, and then stood by and watched us wallow in our failure and shame. He came not just to state the full force of the Law, but to live a life in which He himself fulfilled the law. We see him do this in two ways:

  1. He perfectly loved, trusted and obeyed his Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Or, in short, he kept every command ever given that fits under the banner of, ‘Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind.’ – the greatest commandment (Luke 10:27). And he perfectly loved his neighbour (including his enemies) as himself, even to the point of going to the cross to die for the sins of those who denied, betrayed and mocked him – fulfilling the second greatest command and all other commands that come under that. All that he demanded in the Sermon on the Mount he did, and so the Father could say with confidence, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’ (Matthew 17:5).
  2. He submitted himself to the actions of sinful men who disregarded God’s Law, allowing himself to be beaten and crucified and abandoned by God, and in doing so came under the condemnation that the demands of the Law bring on us who are disobedient. The Law is ‘fulfilled’ either in perfect obedience or in the just penalty that the Law requires being carried out in full on the lawbreaker. Jesus did both on our behalf. 

Yet this second sense of fulfilling the Law did not just happen at one moment on the cross when he cried out the cry of abandonment. His physical suffering and death was the culmination of a series of events which all contributed to the portrait of one who was ‘stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted (Isaiah 53:4). These events began as he arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover:

Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven:“I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.’ (John 12:27-33, emphasis mine)

Verse 27 is for John the parallel to Jesus’ time of prayer in the garden (which is not recored in John’s Gospel) when Jesus prays, ‘“Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will,’ just after telling his disciples, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’ (Mark 14:34,36).

Again in John 13:21 we’re told, ‘After saying these things Jesus was troubled in his spirit.’ This gives us a different perspective on Jesus’ final hours; all of his teaching with his disciples in John 13-16 and his high priestly prayer of John 17 was given while he was troubled in his spirit; even when he said the words, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.’ (John 14:1)!

So Jesus says, ‘Do not be anxious,’ as one who was to go forward in His Father’s plan: the suffering of the cross and the troubling of his spirit which was part of that. Our anxiety may be based on hypothetical ‘worst case scenarios’ which may or may not happen; it may even be inexplicable, with no seeming reason or rationale. Jesus looked forward with a certainty that the cross and all its grief and shame and pain and loneliness was before Him, because his heart was set on the Father’s will, not His own. His soul was troubled for a good and valid reason. He is our High Priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses because ‘he too suffered when tempted’ (Hebrews 3:15).

3. We need to hear it as a Conclusion based on reality

God’s commands are never arbitrary – in the sense that they are random, or given for no reason, or because He is selfish and wants to get His own way and we need to just shut up and mindlessly obey. He graciously shows us that behind His commands is His own gracious, faithful, wise character, and His desire to do good to His children. We see this reflected in Jesus’ teaching on the Law, including the ‘do not be anxious’ passage. Jesus tells us several realities about life and about his Father:

  1. Life is more than food and the body is more than clothing(25).
  2. Your Father feeds the birds, which are less valuable than you (26).
  3. No time can be added to our lives by worrying (27).
  4. Your Father clothes the flowers on the field which last only a day (30).
  5. The godless are obsessed with meeting their needs (32).
  6. Your Father knows everything you need (32).
  7. Seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness should be central to your life (33).
  8. You cannot know the future (34).

So Jesus does not toss us as trite platitude: ‘Just get over it’. Rather, he gives us at least eight good reasons why there is no reason to be anxious, based on the character and goodness of our heavenly Father; eight reasons to trust in God and in him.

Similarly, Paul’s statement in Philippians 4:6 ‘…do not be anxious about anything…’ does not stand on it’s own; it is sandwiched between ‘The Lord is at hand’ and ‘the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.’ Again, the character and faithfulness of God gives us reason to obey His call to trust and not be anxious.

We need to practice healthy self-talk, reminding ourselves of the Father’s goodness, and calling ourselves to trust Him. In Psalm 42 David says to himself,

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God (Psalms 42:5-6 ESV)

And in Psalm 62:

For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken (Psalms 62:5-6 ESV)

And Psalm 116:

Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you (Psalms 116:7 ESV)

(Not to mention also Psalms 43:5, 103:1-5, 104:1,35, 146:1)

The problem is not that we don’t talk to ourselves, but that we tell ourselves the wrong things – untruths, condemnation, self righteousness; and we tell ourselves to believe the voices around us that constantly whisper, ‘Has God said…?’

Instead of listing the nature of our circumstances and concluding that all will be disastrous, we need to list the nature of our Father and His faithful and righteous acts so that we will conclude that He is good and can be trusted to world for good in whatever may be around the corner, be it gladness or grief.

This is not a guaranteed method to remove forever the possibility of ever feeling anxious again. I trust rather that it will give encouragement in the battles when they do come; the ability to ‘rejoice in our sufferings’ – which is not a promise that sufferings, be they physical or psychological, will cease, but that in the midst of suffering we may have the bedrock knowledge that He is faithful.