Men of Grace or Men of Law: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
As I promised last week, we’re going to take a look at perhaps one of the most misunderstood sections of the New Testament Bible, that which has been called the Sermon on the Mount as found in Matthew 5-7 (and Luke 6). Let me just preface this audio by putting what it meant to be under the Law in simple terms … the example Paul used in the letter to the Galatians. Simply stated, those under the Law were like children who need total supervision, those who have been set free and are under grace have grown up. No more hand-holding, no more putting on of a leash. I want you to also consider that just like with our children, we do not despise them because they need supervision. Sure, sometimes they can drive us almost insane, but when we remember that they are simply children, we don’t mind taking their hand to keep them from running off. Actually, we often come to value the experience. Let’s give Israel under the Law the same concern and care as we examine these passages, okay?
Adam: Anything here in relation to how you’ve come to see your own child in view of her need for supervision?
Now, let me ask you all something else in view of the reality that you have moved past childhood. Do you still fear your former bondage to the rules and regulations that kept you safe at a time when you needed such supervision? Most of us would probably say no, but I’m going to suggest that you very well may be hanging on to quite a few of those old fears … and that you’ve simply transferred them into your current grown-up versions of the fear that kept you in control as a child. I’ve seen a few comedies that over-exaggerate situations in order to make those childhood fears seem funny. A former student, now with children of his own, will tremble and fall into submission upon hearing the voice of a teacher or principle he feared as a child. I’ve come to realize that there’s only one reason we find stuff like that funny, and it’s because inside we understand the truth in those hidden fears.
Those of you who still hang onto that former need of supervision have probably been encouraged to do so by a religious teacher, parents, children, your government, etcetera. I’m hoping that in the course of digging through Jesus’ words in Matthew 5-7 that you might also come to realize how often you’ve been dragging those old fears of bondage around and how easily you project them into your current belief system as it relates to the Sermon on the Mount.
Adam: Anything here about the projecting of old fears?
So, on to the Sermon on the Mount. I think there are a few standard approaches: One is to simply pick and choose the verse or set of verses desired, another is to proceed verse by verse through the all 3 chapters, or to choose one of the specific sections that are often separated by translator headings (like the Beatitudes, Salt and Light, the Fulfillment of the Law, and so on). By and large, I think most search through the Sermon on the Mount when they’re dealing with some real issues and want some insight on how they should proceed.
And hey, I’m not here to tell you that you can’t find — or that you haven’t found — some words of comfort or freedom in the midst of your struggles with some serious situation … or even a bad attitude. There are many things Jesus said in these chapters that can be quite encouraging, like when you’re feeling the hatred of the world around you just because you believe in Christ, it can be good to hear the words Jesus tell you that because the kingdom of heaven belongs to you, you are blessed when you suffer. However, consider that when you establish the Sermon on the Mount as your manifesto on how to live the Christian Life, you’re also going to establish Jesus as the one who came to convict you of your sin.
Adam: That’s for sure. Christians get caught up in some pretty serious sin-consciousness from Jesus’ words in these chapters. I mean, how are we supposed to handle the implication that even though we may not have murdered anyone, we are just as in danger of hell-fire as the murderer? Or even if we keep ourselves sexually pure, we commit adultery simply by lusting after a woman? And even in those blessings of the section called the Beatitudes, we can’t find comfort because now we’re wondering if we’re poor enough in spirit to qualify! How many of us have asked ourselves when reading these verses if we’re meek enough? Do we truly, seriously hunger and thirst for righteousness? Are we merciful enough? Pure in heart … are you kidding me? And then we have to wonder if we’re actually being persecuted for our faith … or if it’s just because we’re acting like religious jerks!
So instead of us trying to figure out why Jesus made any specific statement, let’s step back and get a better picture of who he was talking to, who and what he was speaking in reference to, as well as how the people took it all in. It’s going to reveal a lot more than what you might think. And like I’ve said many times before, this is the kind of consideration we’ll even give when we want to get to the bottom of some seeming contradiction. And you know what? Gossip and rumors flourish in the absence of such consideration because they’re built upon bits and pieces of truth as well as viewpoint. The truth is that the circumstances surrounding certain statements can be just as important as the words themselves in that they provide the basis upon which the words find their meaning. So if we’re only examining the individual trees without stepping back to view the whole forest, we might be able to understand specific trees, but we won’t understand their relation to the whole forest.
There’s a scene in the movie Elizabeth — and I’m not validating its historical accuracy — but it provides an excellent example of what I’m describing. And as the scene revolves around the question of adultery, it’s even more apropos to this portion of Scripture. After all, this is where we find the infamous saying “…but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) How many of us have gotten caught up in vicious cycles because of that?
Adam: Yeah, there are lots of Christians who might feel pretty good about having kept themselves pure on the basis that they haven’t actually had sexual intercourse, but this would equally condemn them simply for having impure thoughts. It’s no wonder that so many Christians, especially young Christian men, would get caught up in the futile cycle of trying to not lust after a woman. After all, the more you’re trying to not think of something, the more you’re going to think about it.
In the movie, Queen Elizabeth is attempting to persuade the religious leaders to unify England by creating their own church, the “Church of England.” At that time in history, England was in the midst of some bloody upheavals, as Catholics and Protestants had been going in and out of favor since the rule of Henry VIII. As soon as one side got into power, anyone who posed a threat was accused, persecuted and executed. Right in the middle of the commotion (before she won them over), one of the religious leaders made a pompous argument about her lack of supporting the “sanctity of marriage”. His comment almost turned the tide against her proposal until she replied something along the lines of: “Who are you to lecture us about the ‘sanctity of marriage’ when you yourself have been divorced THREE times and are now on your fourth wife?” With that, the tension began to break and many of them began to laugh and lean her way. It was a downhill defeat for her opposition after that. The fact was that EVERYBODY knew about this man’s divorce rate, but until she verbalized the religious hypocrisy of his claims, they hadn’t even considered the connection.
Adam: Like you said, it doesn’t make any difference whether the scene in that movie is accurate or not, because either way it still presents a scenario that could be so easily misunderstood if we were to only examine the words without taking the whole scene into account. Situations like this, where much more than just the conversation, take place every day, even in our own lives. Looking at the Sermon on the Mount in view of the overall situation can only give us a better insight.
You see, the Pharisees were supposedly preaching the law, and they pointed their fingers and condemned those who opposed their interpretations of the Law, and yet it was common knowledge that they used the law to get rid of the wives who didn’t please them. And this same hypocrisy found its way among the people of Israel. The common people of that day may not have been able to get around the laws the way their religious leaders did, but there is no way they weren’t fundamentally affected by the teaching they had received their whole lives. Jesus’ point was clear, not only to the religious leaders but also to all who judged others according to their own self-righteousness. It demanded: who are YOU to lecture others about “keeping the law” when you bend it and get around it every chance you can?
Okay then, who was Jesus talking to? Was it the religious leaders or the people in general? Let’s look at what both Matthew and Luke say about it:
Adam: Matthew 5:1-2 says: When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying,
While it may seem from Matthew’s account that only the 12 disciples were there, Luke includes quite a few more than we might imagine as being the ones who were regarded as Jesus’ disciples:
Adam: In Luke 6:17-19 it says: Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place; and there was a large crowd of His disciples, and a great throng of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were being cured. And all the people were trying to touch Him, for power was coming from Him and healing them all.
So basically, there was quite a crowd that gathered to hear Jesus speak that day. However, there is no specific mention of the religious leaders being present as was the case in many of the confrontations recorded after this event.
Adam: So, do you think that means the Pharisees, rabbis, and scribes weren’t there?
Not a chance. I’m sure they were around and were mingling among the crowd. They just weren’t in force. They weren’t there to confront him but to check him out. You see, at that point in time, although they were probably disturbed by the reports coming in, they hadn’t yet determined what they thought they could do about Jesus. It was still early in the game for them. But the fact that he was drawing a large crowd — especially after all the commotion created by that wild preacher in the wilderness who called them out in front of some of these same people — it would be naive to assume that they weren’t there in the crowd. Keep in mind that when Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, as recorded in John 3:2, he was sent by the Pharisees in hopes of winning him over. Why else do you think Nicodemus started out by saying, “Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher…” Don’t miss the fact that Nicodemus was representing the concerns of the Pharisees.
So, let’s move on to the people’s reaction to this lengthy message from Jesus:
Adam: In Matthew 7, verses 28 & 29 it says “When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”
Jim, there’s not a lot said here, so what does this one statement tell you?
The first thing it tells me is found in the description Matthew gave regarding why they were amazed at Jesus’ teaching, and it is that they recognized Jesus’ teaching as coming from one having authority. That is, he spoke as one who had authority, not as one who claimed authority.
Adam: That’s a pretty big distinction, isn’t it?
It sure is. And if you consider what Jesus said about them in perhaps his harshest expose against them, it really shows up that distinction:
Adam: In Matthew 23, verses 1-3, it says: ‘Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.”’
You see, we’ll get ourselves all tangled up about whether this means that as Christians we’re supposed to do what our legalistic teachers tell us to do … but we’re missing the most obvious thing Jesus was saying about the religious leaders, and therefore, how it came across to the people. The authority the scribes and Pharisees claimed came from having assumed the position, it was not truly bestowed by God upon them. He wanted the people to realize that their leaders did not do what they told others to do. Do you realize what this did? It not only revealed the hypocrisy of their leaders, which was something the people may have questioned their whole lives, but it also gave the people no excuse to fall back upon when they discovered their own hypocrisy.
Adam: So in other words, when they faced their own hypocrisy, they couldn’t use the lame excuse that they were only following the example of their scribes and Pharisees.
Exactly. And that’s what took place in Jerusalem when the Spirit of God spoke through Peter (as recorded in Acts chapter two). The reason the people were so powerfully impacted was due to more than just what happened on that day, it had everything to do with how Jesus had been ripping down their religious arguments. First, he revealed the failure and hypocrisy of the religious leadership in front of all Israel. And then he put it back into their own hands by telling them that despite their leaders’ obvious lack of following the Law themselves, the people should follow what was passed on to them from the words of Moses. And what did the people do? They all ended up in agreement with their leaders in demanding that Jesus should die!
I know from personal experience how easy is can be to blame one’s leaders — of your religion, of your country, of your community, or whatever — we’ll blame them for everything that is bad with our world. The truth is that leaders are just ordinary people who for some reason or another got promoted into a position above the rest, which means they are no different than any other person. Leaders get picked on simply because they’ve taken a public stand and therefore their beliefs, their thoughts and/or their ideologies are put out there for all to examine.
Adam: I think most people probably don’t want to admit that when it comes down to it, they are very much like the leaders they often despise.
Amen to that. Anyhow, I know what it means to get sucked in by a speaker’s powerful style and presentation. And I took it as if God himself was speaking to me. Do you know what I mean? But once you hear someone who actually knows the God they’re talking about and who knows what the Law really says, everything else starts coming across as dogs barking or puffed up peacocks! It’s like those magicians in Egypt during the time of Moses who were able to copy the signs he performed for Pharaoh, until Moses’ rod that had been turned into a snake gobbled up those made by the posers.
So regarding Matthew’s summary. Over the years, I’ve come across depictions of certain Biblical scenes in radio shows or cartoons (like those old Chick tracts, if you’re familiar with those), probably even in some sermons, where the attempt to keep it scriptural ended up creating some ridiculous presentations. It’s like, they would have the crowd in a scene like this speaking in unison “We are amazed at his teaching; for he is teaching us as one having authority, and not as our scribes!” I’m pretty sure, however, that Matthew’s summary came from the random comments and reactions he witnessed in the crowd around him during the course of Jesus’ talk, rather than some well-spoken statement at the end. When I picture it, I imagine the same kind of involuntary expressions of surprise or amazement I’ve heard coming from a crowd after some shocking news had been reported. You know, the gasps or the “whoa”s or other revealing comments.
Adam: It does seem that how people respond before they can compose themselves can tell us a lot more as to what is really going on.
Anyhow, it all adds up to the simple reality that these people caught on immediately to the distinctions between what they had heard from their religious leaders versus what they had heard from Jesus. It doesn’t mean they all liked what they heard, but it was so clear-cut. It was as different as night and day to them. Their teachers, the scribes, were not teaching with authority, and the people knew it. I’m even thinking that perhaps some of them hadn’t picked up on that distinction until they heard Jesus speak — and then it was like right there in their faces. And you gotta know those teachers wouldn’t have been too thrilled about the reports that would have come back after that public exposure.
Jim, so you’re saying that even though the scribes and Pharisees weren’t necessarily attending, at least in an official way, that Jesus’ whole message — this “Sermon on the Mount” — somehow relates to the legalistic aspects of their teaching? I mean, this could present an entirely different way of viewing this message that seems to pull an awful lot of believers into bondage. Can you tie this back in so that we can see how this all plays out?
Alright then, let’s start from the very beginning. Let’s reconsider the section called The Beatitudes (which means supreme blessedness, exalted happiness). And please realize that I’m not going to change the simple realities which Jesus spoke, rather I want to challenge you in view of the mind of those who heard these words. For they are good words, especially when seen in contrast to everything they had heard from the teachers of the Law.
In view of the tight control the religious leaders exerted over Israel, the common people of Israel probably didn’t hear much, if anything, about any blessings that might apply to them, did they?
No, I don’t think they would have. Just a simple reading through Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John shows that the religious leaders in Israel held such power over the common folks that they couldn’t afford to give the people any slack because they were so fearful of losing their positions. I think they held to the same Might-is-Right philosophy that has dominated most governments of the world. Here’s what Jesus said about the scribes and Pharisees at another time: “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.” Matthew 23:4 (NASB)
You see, rather than having taught the despised commoners of any blessings likened to what Jesus spoke, the religious leaders made sure to present just the opposite. In other words, the blessings were obviously understood to have been bestowed upon those who were rich, upon those who were already in comfort, upon those who had already inherited their kingdom, upon those who were already satisfied, upon those who believed that showing mercy was akin to weakness, upon those who supposedly knew God, upon those whose confidence rested in referring to themselves as Sons of Abraham, upon those who were above suffering, and upon those who had the power to destroy those who dared to openly insult them.
What Jesus expressed in his opening statements represents the heart of God that has always been toward those who were considered inferior. The common people would not have heard this from their teachers because their teachers did not believe any such thing. They supposedly taught the Law, and yet overlooked the more important aspects. Adam, would you read Matthew 23:23?
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.
I suspect that most grace-believers have come to view the Law in terms of the weakness of the flesh rather than according to what it really was to Israel. Consider the implications that the weightier provisions of the Law were justice and mercy and faithfulness. It was for their good. It brought blessings to the people that were far superior to anything in the world around them. There were reasons that outsiders found places among them and joined their ranks. It was a society where the people could be treated fairly and justly. Of course, we know there’s trouble, even in paradise! The Law was never an end-all, for it was made up of external laws that couldn’t get past the heart of stone.
So, here we have Jesus declaring the blessings that God meant toward them from the beginning. What we need to realize is that these blessings totally destroy the illusion of blessings that are so often promoted by the religious system. Now, while I wouldn’t mind having a greater share of those things that are usually thought of as God’s blessings, I’ve experienced enough to recognize the illusion created by having them.
Adam: Yeah, really. I mean, when some of the most bitter and disappointed people in the world are those who have more blessings than others, you don’t need to be a scholar to figure out that something ain’t quite right about our concept of blessings.
And in the case of those who heard Jesus speak the words that have come to be referred to as The Beatitudes, you can be sure that the people heard the sharp contrast between what they heard from their teachers and what Jesus was saying. He turned their perspective upside down. Something tells me that more than a few of them were thinking — or maybe even saying out loud — “That’s not what the scribes and Pharisees have been telling us!”
Maybe you don’t realize it, but the Pharisees were a tight-knit group of men who looked out for their own good. They were some of the rich men among the people, and it was assumed that they had been blessed by God. This assumption help define what it meant to be blessed And yet, here was a man who spoke of God’s true blessings, blessings that were given to those who were truly in need … and blessings that were given despite all appearance to the contrary.
Adam: So I’m wondering if you think the Beatitudes apply to Christians today?
Yeah, we can get ourselves all wrapped up with that kind of thinking, can’t we? However, what if it is closer to the truth to realize that it is instead the GOD of these blessings that applies to us, not a set of principles. After all, it is in Christ that we are found in him. You see, we don’t have to be of the Law in order to appreciate and find comfort in the heart of a God who blesses those who have been cast off by the world, especially those who have been discarded by the religious world. I mean didn’t Paul tell the Corinthians the same basic reality in chapter one of the first letter?
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.” 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (NASB)
It’s sad to realize that those who were under the Law found more freedom in these words that speak of the topsy-turvy God of blessings than we have; that is, those of us who have been already set free in Christ. They would have heard them as mind-boggling realities that destroyed the very foundation of their religious world; we seem to go stupid and turn them into principles that attack the very foundation of our life and freedom in Christ.
The same applies to how we view the verses following about being the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city on hill, and the lamp on the lampstand. We’ve got this whole thing figured out as a way to describe our attempts to hide our light under a basket. Do you think Jesus was suggesting anything of the sort … even to those who were under the Law? Take a good look, and then ask yourself who it is who really made Israel to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city on a hill, the lamp on the lampstand. It was God. He did that. He stuck them out there in such a way as to reveal himself to the world.
Adam: You know, it doesn’t say anything about how they’re supposed to TRY to be the salt of the earth, does it? For that matter, Jesus didn’t tell them to TRY to be the light of the world, or to TRY to set themselves up on the hill, or even to TRY to put themselves up on the lampstand. What about not hiding our little light under a basket but letting it shine?
Isn’t it amazing how we’ve trying to take control of what God does? Yeah, even with this little light of mine! Putting the light under the basket refers back to the reality that if God made his people (and here it speaks directly about Israel) to be the light of the world, then it would follow that he wouldn’t hide it, the same way no one would light a lamp only to hide it under a basket. It’s a simple statement of reality. People don’t do that when they light a lamp, which means that God didn’t do that, either. He put Israel out there to reveal his glory to the world. As it relates to what he said before, his message to those who saw themselves as not having been blessed was to let their weaknesses be seen. Can you hear it? It was the very things about them (that which was despised by the self-righteous) that were the good works that would reveal the glory of God. Remember what Paul himself came to realize?
Adam: Yes I do, and I think this has got to be one of your favorite passages (at least according to how often you bring it up). It’s 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 where it says,
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
This will probably be where we end, and I will throw a couple bones out for people to chew on until then. Specifically, the distinction between why Jesus said, “You have heard that the ancients were taught…” rather than, “The ancients were taught…” or simply “It is written:”