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Jesus’ Preaches the Sermon on the Mount
(chapter 5, verse 1 through chapter 7, verse 29)
Matthew chapter 5, verses 1-12
Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted
because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
There is no doubt that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the most famous sermon ever preached. It is perhaps also the most misunderstood. It is not a summary of the whole Christian faith. As a matter of fact, it is safe to say that a person who claims to find his whole religion in this sermon is not even a Christian. And no one who hears or reads this sermon by itself, apart from the rest of Scripture, will come to an understanding of the Christian faith.
In order to understand this sermon, we must keep in mind the audience to whom it was preached and the purpose Jesus had in mind. The audience was, primarily, Jesus’ disciples, although the large crowds who had been following Jesus were evidently in the background listening in. The purpose of the sermon was to give the believers a better understanding of the God-pleasing Christian life.
An unbeliever is likely to interpret Jesus’ words as a prescription for making oneself righteous and earning a place in the kingdom of God. When he takes a close look at the requirements, he may decide that it isn’t worth the effort. Or he may take only a superficial look and convince himself that he is capable of saving himself by his own efforts, that he can produce the righteousness God demands of us.
The Beatitudes (statements of blessings) serve as the introduction to this sermon. They do not tell us how to become blessed; they rather describe the blessedness that already belongs to all believers in Christ. They do not describe eight kinds of believers; they mention eight ways in which all Christians are blessed. All Christians are poor in spirit. They all mourn and are meek. They all hunger and thirst for righteousness and are merciful and pure in heart. They are peacemakers and are persecuted for righteousness.
As we examine ourselves, we must confess that we possess these characteristics only to a limited extent, and we are made to realize that we forfeit many blessings by failing to live up to the ideals Jesus expresses here. So we want to take a look at the Beatitudes in order to gain a deeper appreciation for the blessings we already possess as Christians and to grow in sanctification—which will result in even more blessings from our gracious God.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor in spirit recognize their spiritual poverty, their sinfulness and unworthiness in God’s sight. They realize that they sin daily and deserve nothing but punishment from God. They admit that their best efforts at living up to God’s standards as expressed in the Ten Commandments fall miserably short. They know that of themselves they cannot do a single thing that is good and acceptable to God.
God demands one hundred percent performance, but we are stuck on zero. So how does that qualify us to be participants in the kingdom of heaven? It is only the starting point, the empty vessel ready to be filled. The poor in spirit also know that they are rich before God through faith in Christ Jesus. His perfect obedience to all of God’s commandments and his sacrificial death on the cross for all the sins of the world accomplished what we could never manage by our own efforts. And God gives us the credit for Jesus’ perfect righteousness. So the poor become rich. They are most blessed after all.
In this connection it is important to note that the Bible does not regard poverty in material things as a special virtue. To be poor or even to take a vow of poverty does not qualify anyone for the kingdom of heaven. Nor do riches disqualify anyone. The kingdom of heaven belongs to both rich and poor who are poor in spirit. But Jesus does point out that it is generally more difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
In the fourth chapter of Luke, we are told that Jesus read from the book of Isaiah when he stood up to read in the synagogue in Nazareth: “The LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted” (Isaiah chapter 61, verse 1). The poor and the brokenhearted are the same people. Jesus told the people in the synagogue that he was fulfilling those words of Isaiah in their hearing that very day. He fulfilled this prophecy again when he preached the Sermon on the Mount.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” This mourning primarily expresses sorrow over sin, one’s own sins. It also expresses grief over all the consequences of sin in this world. This includes all the troubles and tribulations of this life and finally the just wages of sin, namely, death. Sin deserves both temporal and eternal death, and there can be no greater sorrow than this.
But those who mourn now can be comforted. As Christians, we do not mourn like those who have no hope, for God has given us hope. He promises and provides comfort and strength in every tribulation and finally eternal life for Jesus’ sake. “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes” (Revelation chapter 21, verse 4). Those who do not acknowledge and mourn their sins during this life will still suffer sin’s consequences, but they will not receive genuine comfort. They will mourn in all eternity in that place where there is constant weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The meek are gentle and patient. They are not boisterous and demanding, and they do not insist on their rights without consideration for others. They endure mistreatment without retaliating. Like Jesus, they are willing to leave the matter of vengeance in God’s hands. They “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile.” They possess an inner strength that the “macho” only pretend to have. And to the surprise of many, they will inherit the earth. It is for their sakes that the earth is preserved even now. It is for their benefit that God directs the affairs of men and nations. God makes all things work together for their good. And they will inherit the new heavens and the new earth when Christ comes again and raises their dead bodies and gives them a share in eternal glory.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are primarily concerned about being righteous through faith in Christ Jesus (chapter 6, verse 33). They naturally then also desire to live righteous and God-pleasing lives, and they are concerned about sharing Christ’s righteousness with the whole world. They trust that, when they put first things first, their heavenly Father will keep his promise to provide them with everything they need for this body and life.
They also know how to satisfy their spiritual hunger and thirst. They know the Lord Jesus as the Bread of Life, and they drink deeply of the living water that he provides. In other words, they faithfully use the means of grace, the gospel of Christ in Word and sacrament. They like to make the Word of God a part of their daily routine. They love to assemble regularly with their fellow believers to hear God’s Word proclaimed. They do not casually pass up opportunities to receive the Lord’s Supper, and they live with daily appreciation of the blessings of their baptism, thus continuing to be blessed and strengthened by the covenant of grace the Lord made with them through Holy Baptism. They know that God forgives all their sins day by day and that they will stand among the righteous on Christ’s right hand on the day of judgment.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” The merciful appreciate God’s mercy, which forgives them and saves them for Jesus’ sake, and they, in turn, are merciful to those who sin against them and to all who are in need. They want to be like the Samaritan who stopped to bind up the wounds of the Jew he found half dead along the road. Although the Samaritans and the Jews ordinarily despised and had nothing to do with one another, this Samaritan saw only a person who was in need, and he helped him without expecting anything in return.
We have many opportunities to personally show mercy to people who are in need, and we can show mercy to needy people all over the world by supporting charitable agencies of the church or other worthy causes. Mercy asks only what a less fortunate person needs, not what he deserves.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” To be pure in heart is to be like Nathanael, of whom Jesus said, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false” (John chapter 1, verse 47). The pure in heart speak and act without ulterior motives or concealed selfish interests. What you see in them is what you get from them; and what they say, they mean. What they promise, they will do. Clean hands and a pure heart go together (Psalm 24, verse 4).
Our hearts are naturally sinful and unclean, so they need constant cleansing. It is appropriate that, after we hear God’s Word proclaimed, we call upon the Holy Spirit to “create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.” The pure in heart will see God. They will be able to stand before him in the judgment, and they will dwell in his presence in all eternity.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Peacemakers do not just passively sit back and refrain from starting trouble. They actively strive to make peace where there is enmity or hostility. They offer their services as mediators between warring nations or quarreling relatives or hostile neighbors. Insofar as possible, they strive to live in peace with all people (Hebrews chapter 12, verse 14), but they are also ready to contend for God’s truth and justice when circumstances require it. Although peace is always desirable, peace at any price is not acceptable. Even Jesus said that his gospel would disrupt peace when some accept it and others reject it. His gospel is the issue that often divides families, as well as larger groups of people.
We know that peace with God is possible only through faith in Christ Jesus. We want to offer that peace to all people. Those who reject it in unbelief will have to answer to God in the judgment, and they will be without excuse. God sent his Son into this world as the Prince of peace, and he will call those people his sons who in the spirit of his Son make peace. God’s only begotten Son is the ultimate peacemaker, and all who are God’s sons by adoption want to be peacemakers too.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If we are persecuted or punished for wrongdoing, we have no reason to complain. But we must also expect to suffer at times for saying and doing what is right. That was what happened to Jesus, and he warns that we must not expect any better treatment from the unbelieving world. Peter encourages us, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ” (1st Peter chapter 4, verses 12 and 13).
We don’t want to deliberately antagonize people and invite persecution, but neither do we want to flee from it when we are called upon to endure suffering for the sake of God’s truth and justice. When Paul suffered persecution in one place, he would move on to another city, but his primary concern was always the advancement of Christ’s kingdom, not his personal comfort or convenience. Paul’s example can be an inspiration for us.
All God’s prophets of the Old Testament suffered persecution at the hands of those who should have welcomed and honored them. That will not change, because sinful human nature does not change. Even members of Christian congregations who publicly confess that they regard the Holy Scriptures as God’s inerrant Word, the final authority on all matters of which it speaks, sometimes persecute those who proclaim the whole counsel of God to them. If, for example, they do not like what God’s Word (and their pastor) tells them about divorce or about the sexual purity God requires, many will simply look for a minister and congregation that are willing to overlook or compromise what God clearly says, and they will accuse their God-given pastor of being old-fashioned, bigoted, narrow-minded, intolerant, and uncharitable.
But all who remain faithful to God’s truth will be richly rewarded in heaven. These rewards will be of grace, not merit, and they will be in addition to the salvation that is theirs by Christ’s merits alone. And these rewards will be pleasant surprises for those who receive them.
So the Beatitudes remind us of the blessedness that belongs to all believers in Christ, and they also remind us of the greater blessedness that could be ours already in this life if we would strive more diligently to follow the example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whose only concern was to be faithful about carrying out the mission of mercy for which he came into this world.
Salt and light
Matthew chapter 5, verses 13-16
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
Salt is a preservative. It was the only preservative the people of Jesus’ day had to keep food, especially meat, from spoiling. It is also a seasoning, of course, but here we think primarily of its usefulness as a preservative. Christians serve as a preservative in this corrupt and sinful world. God preserves the world on their account. He would have spared the city of Sodom if there had been only ten righteous people there. Now he preserves the whole world so that Christians may serve him here, and their highest responsibility is to rescue other lost souls from destruction by bringing them the saving gospel of Christ.
But a Christian who loses his faith is useless for this purpose. He is like salt that has lost its saltiness. Technically that cannot happen to salt today, but it could happen to some of the impure salt of Jesus’ day. Such a substance would not be thrown into a field, for it would kill vegetation. It certainly was not fit to eat, and it could not be made fit. On the roads and paths it at least would do no harm, for nothing could grow there anyway.
Jesus is the Light of the world. He came to overcome the darkness of sin, wickedness, ignorance, and unbelief. Christians are the light of the world in the sense that they reflect the light of Christ, just as the moon reflects the light of the sun.
It is the nature of light to shine. There is no such thing as light that does not shine. That would be impossible, like cold heat or dry water. But light can be covered up so that no one can see it. Jesus tells us not to do that. He tells us to live our Christian lives in such a way that the world may be able to see the difference Christ makes in us. Then unbelievers, who know what is right and what is wrong, will be compelled to glorify our heavenly Father for the good he works through us.
Jesus does not tell us to make a show of our good works or to parade our piety like a Pharisee. He rather urges us to live our faith even in the presence of the ungodly. As long as we bear in mind that we want to glorify God, not ourselves, we’ll know how to do this. The difference will not be in the outward acts, but in the heart that produces them.
Note that Jesus does not say he wants us to be salt and light. He tells us that is what we are. We cannot cease to be salt and light and remain Christians. Even if the ungodly ridicule our godly ways here and now, the time will come when they will have to acknowledge our works to be good. Looking forward to the day of judgment, Peter encourages us: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1st Peter chapter 2, verse 12).
The fulfillment of the Law
Matthew chapter 5, verses 17-20
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
In this section we find the theme of the Sermon on the Mount: The Righteousness That Marks Christ’s True Disciples. Righteousness is what all religions are concerned about, righteousness among people and especially righteousness in the sight of God.
All religions except Christianity teach that people must find a way to make themselves righteous enough to be acceptable to God, to earn their own salvation. But the Bible tells us, and all Christians believe, that sinners are righteous before God only through faith in Christ Jesus. He is our righteousness. He lived the perfect life that God demands and that we cannot even begin to attain—and we get the credit for Christ’s work. Now we want to strive for righteousness in our own thoughts and words and deeds.
Jesus did not establish a new religion. He did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. This expression, “the Law and the Prophets,” is a designation for the entire Old Testament Scriptures, the same 39 books we have in the Old Testament section of our Bibles today. From Genesis to Malachi, there is one primary message: all people are sinful and deserve punishment from God, but God promised to send a Savior from sin. Through faith in that coming Savior, people living before the time of Christ received God’s forgiveness and eternal salvation.
Jesus was (and is) that promised Savior. He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. He came to keep all of God’s commandments perfectly and to fulfill all the promises about the Savior that are contained in the entire Old Testament. This will not fail to take place, he assures his disciples here, for not a word, not the smallest letter, of the Scriptures may be set aside as long as this world endures. Scripture is God’s inspired Word, and God is truth personified. “The Scripture cannot be broken,” Jesus said on another occasion (John chapter 10, verse 35). We properly speak of the Bible as being inerrant and infallible. So does Jesus here and in many other places.
Any contradiction of God’s Word is a serious matter. Those who teach God’s Word to others bear a heavy responsibility. “If you hold to my teaching,” Jesus said, “you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John chapter 8, verses 31 and 32).
Here Jesus warns that anyone who does not hold to his teachings “will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Anyone who deliberately contradicts what he knows to be God’s truth cannot even be a Christian. But even a sincere believer may become guilty of unwittingly teaching contrary to God’s Word. This may be due to ignorance or to a faulty way of attempting to interpret the Scriptures, such as trying to explain in a logical way mysteries of God that are clearly beyond our comprehension. For example, Jesus plainly says that he gives us his body and blood to eat and to drink in the Lord’s Supper. Since we cannot explain how that takes place, some teach that the bread and wine are only symbols of Christ’s body and blood. Similarly, some regard Holy Baptism as only symbolic, since we cannot understand how this sacrament can generate saving faith and wash away sin.
Such false teachers are not excluded by their false teaching from the kingdom of God as long as they still know Jesus as their Savior, but God will regard them as “least in the kingdom of heaven.” We’ll have to wait until we get to heaven to see how God demonstrates their status in his kingdom. For now it is important that we simply realize that any deviation from God’s truth exposes one to the danger of losing more of it and finally losing out on eternal salvation. So those who teach God’s Word want to evaluate all teachings on the basis of their own study of the Scriptures.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were commonly regarded as examples of righteousness. They believed that God should be fully satisfied with their personal righteousness and that their place in God’s kingdom was secure. But Jesus declares that we have to do better than they do if we are ever to enter into the kingdom of heaven. If you want to use the system of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, Jesus tells us, you will have to outdo them by keeping the law perfectly. He will go on to explain that this involves not only outward acts, but also words and even one’s inmost thoughts and desires.
Such perfection is obviously beyond the ability of any of us, so we need to look beyond ourselves for the righteousness that avails before God. Only Christ the Savior can provide this perfect righteousness for us. He gives us the credit for his perfect obedience to God’s law, and God welcomes us into his heavenly kingdom.
Matthew chapter 5, verses 21-26
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Jesus proceeds now to demonstrate how deficient the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were in their keeping of the commandments. According to their traditions, they could keep the Fifth Commandment simply by refraining from the outward act of murder. But Jesus points out that the commandment could also be violated by one’s words and even thoughts.
Jesus refers to the three levels of courts that functioned in Israel. The lower courts dealt with civil matters, and the intermediate courts handled criminal cases. The highest court was the Sanhedrin, which consisted of 70 men with the high priest presiding over them. Only this court could consider matters of war or the imposing of the death penalty, although at Jesus’ time any death penalty had to be approved and imposed by the Roman court.
There is such a thing as righteous anger, which is concerned about God’s honor and God’s truth, but here Jesus speaks about sinful anger, which is concerned about revenge and may involve hatred. Such anger may not even be evident to other people, but God is aware of it, and it deserves God’s punishment. It is difficult to translate accurately the word Raca and the word Jesus used for “You fool,” but it is evident that the latter expression is more vicious than the preceding one. It has been suggested that Raca was not even a real word, just a sound of disgust or contempt that was accompanied by appropriate gestures.
What Jesus illustrates here is that even sinful desires or evil words that fall short of the act of murder are transgressions of God’s commandment and deserve the severest punishment. “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him” (1st John chapter 3, verse 15).
So don’t approach God in prayer or in worship with anger in your heart or with righteous anger in someone else’s heart against you. If you have wronged someone, go to that person and attempt to be reconciled before approaching the Lord’s altar. Unrepented sin is a barrier to any kind of God-pleasing worship, and these words are appropriately applied to our preparation for receiving the Lord’s Supper. Genuine repentance will always lead to a sincere effort to undo the wrong of which one has been guilty.
The thing to do is to “settle matters quickly with your adversary,” the person you have offended. Do it before you even appear in front of the judge. A convicted criminal in prison could not, at that time, pay his debt to society by simply serving his time. Restitution had to be made. He might have to sell his property, or perhaps his wife or children could manage to pay his debt; sometimes family members would even be sold into slavery to pay such a debt. But anyone who is condemned by God and cast into the prison of hell will never be able to regain his freedom, no matter what the members of his family might be willing to do for him. That would be the fate of anyone following the example of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. The righteousness of Jesus’ disciples had to surpass that of those false teachers. This is possible only when Christ’s perfect righteousness is imputed to sinners through faith.