Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5)

  • The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ instruction to the apostles for their ministry after His crucifixion.
  • It begins with the Beatitudes: the foundation to protect them from becoming spiritually defeated following His departure.
  • He explained the opposition they would encounter: mankind’s nature is always trying to usurp God’s authority as Judge.

To This Point

Chapter one lists Jesus’ genealogy and recounts the angel calming Joseph regarding Mary’s premarital pregnancy. Chapter two narrates His birth, the visit by the Magi, King Herod’s plot to kill Him, and the family’s flight to, and their return from Egypt. Chapter three introduces John the Baptist, his baptizing Jesus, the Spirit coming down like a dove, and the Father saying that He was pleased with His Son. Chapter four tells about Jesus being tested by Satan in the desert, His beginning to preach, calling some of the disciples, and His healing the sick. That’s when the crowds began to follow Him.

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. . . (Matthew 5:1-2)

Let’s pause for a moment and reconsider the sequence of events. Although Matthew quickly shifts to the sermon after the selection of just the first few disciples (noted in his chapter four), Luke stated that his gospel is written in “consecutive order” (Luke 1:1-4). His account is less abbreviated—it includes: Jesus going to the mountain, praying the whole night, calling the disciples and choosing twelve from among them. After that came the healings and Beatitudes (from Luke 6:12-20).

I bring this up to clarify who His intended audience is. Those crowds and some other disciples were nearby but the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5 through 7) was primarily to the Twelve. Jesus was introducing them to His ministry. It would be theirs too—and it would upend the religious system they grew up with.

The Beatitudes

Jesus began by identifying what would sustain His newly selected messengers while preaching the gospel.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:3-12)

Still Under the Old Covenant

The sermon’s context was established in Matthew 4:14-17 saying that Isaiah (in his chapter nine) prophesied Jesus would be the Great Light who came to show the people they were sitting in darkness—to lead them out of impending death.

That darkness was being perpetuated by the religious leaders. They taught that God was pleased by outward displays of following the Law and ignored the fact that His desire was for everyone to know and wholeheartedly trust Him. Jesus’ message was stinging, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It was time for the change to begin. The King, and His kingdom, were right there with them!

Undoubtedly the Jews knew that the Law was immensely important, but they had lost sight of His reason for giving it to them. They were to be His priests of the gospel to the world. Let’s take a brief look at that religious system. . .

Exodus chapter 18 relates that after leaving Egypt and being camped at Mt. Sinai, Moses was faced with complainers from morning until evening. Members from every family came to him about arguments they were having with neighboring families. They said that they wanted to know God’s will so they could do it; but they really wanted him to validate that they were right –and that their neighbors were wrong.

In an effort to relieve Moses of the overwhelming burden, his father-in-law Jethro offered a solution. Moses was to set up a hierarchy of judges to decide their cases –he would only judge the difficult ones. Moses was also to get a set of rules from God so that the people would know His will without a judge’s intervention. Those rules were the Ten Commandments.

By the way, the commandments weren’t to make the people good or holy. Instead, they were to be a mirror that clearly proved that everyone had elevated themselves above everyone else –including God.

The rest of Exodus and all of Deuteronomy, Numbers and Leviticus contain rules governing daily life, the tabernacle, the annual feasts, the sacrificial system, and the Levitical Priesthood that officiated over it all. These rules describe what was required to reconcile the people –particularly in their relationships with God.

Together, the commandments and these other rules constituted the Law. It was the foundation for the covenant –the Old Covenant– that made the Jews His kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:3-6).

That Covenant’s Intent

The Law was like a scripted dialog for the whole body of Jews to present a set of dramas and pictures that foretold Jesus’ coming and purpose.

Although veiled, the Law illustrated His birth and His life. It declared His position of divine authority (from Creator to Judge). It revealed that He was the necessary and the sufficient sacrifice to escape destruction. It showed that He was the source of eternal life.

The Law does one other thing. It proves that no one else can truly do what it says. Only Jesus exactly lived the life that it describes. It’s His life-story –it’s His biography.

There He was –the One that the covenant predicted– recalling that God chose the people to be salt and light.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)

Salt is a flavor enhancer and also a natural preservative. It was the common element in all of their sacrificial offerings to let them know the significance of their role. As “the salt of the earth” they were to warn the world about the death sentence hanging overhead.

Similarly, light illuminates the way out of death and into life. They were “the light of the world” to lead people to the Messiah. “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men” (from John 1:1-4).

Jesus questioned the Jews’ continued relevance as a kingdom of priests who were to show the world about Him. Were they “salt that had lost its saltiness?” Were they “shining their light before men to glorify their Father?”

Preparing for Transition

Let me state the obvious as a reminder. Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jews about Jewish matters.

In a few years His crucifixion would terminate their Old Covenant and ratify the New Covenant. There would be a new kingdom of priests made up of Jews and Gentiles –those who have the Spirit. The dramas and pictures –sacrifices of animals, offerings of crops, men as mediators between mankind and God, symbols of the Messiah– would all be replaced by the One they depicted –Jesus, Himself –the new High Priest (from Hebrews 7:11-14).

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.

“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18)

About that often disputed word. . .

Abolish means to “cancel, annul, put an end to, or do away with.” In the case of the Law, it’s about stopping the the practice of the sacrificial system which was governed by the Levitical Priesthood.

Abolish does not mean to destroy the written record of what God had the Jews perform for generations. They had been His priests of the gospel –to the world.

Jesus’ ministry was just beginning and He was preparing the apostles for spending those years as first-hand witnesses who would later testify that He did indeed accomplish and fulfill all that was written.

He said to them “You have heard that the ancients were told. . .” Whether a person read the Law or not, they heard it over and over. Their ancestors repeatedly agreed to the covenant –each time saying “We will do everything that the Lord commands of us” (e.g., Exodus 19:8). That included teaching the whole Law to their children and to the foreigners among them for all generations (e.g., Deuteronomy 31:12).

Remember, the first part of the Law, the Ten Commandments, didn’t make a person good or holy. Instead it was given as a mirror to prove that all of the people had set themselves above everyone else. Those priests-to-the-world carried the Commandments as a standard for recognizing their separation from God –and therefore the need for a savior. It was a ministry of condemnation.

The other part of the Law, those other rules which involved the Levitical Priesthood, would show that Jesus’ death completely reconciled everyone to God. He was that Savior. It was a ministry of reconciliation. By the way, being reconciled doesn’t equate to being saved –but it is the prerequisite.

If He had abolished even a little bit of the Law when He came, He might as well have said “God was just joking with Moses and you: Actually, dedicating a whole tribe to worship didn’t do anything. And killing your finest herd animals and giving up part of your crops was really wasteful. Performing all of those complicated dramas and pictures for generations was meaningless. Being rejected and exploited by the surrounding nations for being different didn’t help you or anyone else. Keeping all of those laws and traditions to be pleasing to God didn’t work. You did it all for nothing!”

But He didn’t abolish the Law then (He didn’t put an end to its practice at that time) because it’s what would identify Him as the Messiah who came and would die and would be raised again. The same is true for what the Prophets wrote. (He didn’t come to abolish them either.)

After His resurrection, He explained His fulfillment of the Law to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-16, 25-27). Essentially, He showed them that His life-story (His biography) was recorded in the Scriptures. He also spent time with the apostles and many others to prove that everything that the Old Covenant described was done. The New had begun.

Jesus’ statement, “until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished,” was a declaration. The Law –that description of Himself– would always remain as a witness of His accomplishments. (Below is from an article by David Biven “How Yeshua became Jesus” –see footnote.)

The yod is the smallest letter of the alphabet, which is why Yeshua used it in His famous saying in Matt 5:18: “Until heaven and earth pass away not one yod (“iota” in the Greek text) or one kots will pass from the Torah.” For emphasis, Yeshua incorporated in this saying a well-known Hebrew expression: lo’ yod ve-LO’ ko-TSO shel yod, “not a yod and not a ‘thorn’ of a yod,” i.e., not the most insignificant and unimportant thing. When Yeshua declared that heaven and earth might sooner disappear than the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, or the smallest stroke of a letter, He was simply saying that the Torah (“Law” or “Teaching”) of Moses would never cease to be.

If the Law is done, completed, finished, fulfilled, then what is this next section about?

“Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)

It’s describing the rewards for the two authorities. The one who is greatest is the One who taught the fullness of the Law (that all people deserve the fires of hell and all need a savior). That same one is the only One who fully kept it –He was the One that it predicted. It is of course Jesus –sitting on His throne there in heaven. He calls those who put their trust in Him, His sheep. They are His bride. They have eternal life with Him.

The one who is least in heaven is the one who convinced Eve that the death punishment for disobeying God’s first command wasn’t valid –he annulled it. And he’s been trying to mislead people ever since –including Jesus in the wilderness. That one is of course Satan. He has already been condemned. Jesus called those religious leaders sons of the devil and they will join him in eternal death –the fires of hell.

Claiming to be Righteous

Over time those leaders had perverted the Law –attempting to prove their own righteousness with outward actions.

“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

He reset the standard –basically saying “If you’re going to claim that following the Law of Moses is what puts you on good terms with God, then you must follow it even more carefully than the best.” And He later condemned them for being law-breakers.

Jesus’ words were focused on His apostles to fix their understanding of mankind’s condition. From God’s perspective, no one is good; no one is righteous. All are in need of eternal life.

That’s what the prophets like Isaiah had repeatedly said. “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 6:64).

In their ministry the apostles would encounter two kinds of people. There were the broken who knew they needed a savior. And there were the self-righteous who were convinced that they lived out the Law perfectly.

Jesus went to the depths of one commandment –and then to another. With each one He condemned those who claimed they were innocent.

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.

Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent. (Matthew 5:21-26)

First He brought up murder –good religious people would never commit such a heinous, capitol offense. Yet, He pointed out that everyone is guilty of murder’s root –anger. And an outward display of anger was punishable by the court. But even if it’s kept out of view, an angry person’s end is eternal death –the fires of hell. Then He associated anger with presenting an offering at the altar and also with demanding a judge to settle an argument.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; 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. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:27-32)

Like murder, adultery’s penalty was death. Good religious people didn’t do that either –instead they got divorced. But He explained that both adultery and divorce were rooted in lust. Everyone is guilty of that –it’s being consumed by the desire for something greater. He advised that it would be better for a person to tear off the part of his body that made him stumble rather than to end up in the fires of hell.

From the Very Beginning

Jesus’ rationale went back further than Moses and the Law. He described mankind’s nature as it was first exposed in the garden. It’s laid out in reverse order –the effects preceded by their causes. (The Matthew 5 verse numbers are noted.)

Cain murdered his brother (v. 21) because he was angry (v. 22). He had just presented his offering (v. 23) and decided that Abel was his problem (v. 24). Had Cain resolved his difference with his brother, hell’s fires wouldn’t have welcomed him (v. 25).

Adultery describes what preceded the murder. God dedicated Eve to her husband Adam when He made her from him. But she looked at the fruit and lusted to be greater (v. 28). She decided that the fruit would make her like God so she took it, ate it –and gave some of it to him to eat (v. 29). Had Eve not looked with her eye and not taken with her hand, hell’s fires wouldn’t have beckoned her (v. 30).

Both of these began with a decision –a judgment. That was after God demonstrated that He alone is the one to decide what’s good and what’s evil by saying to them “Don’t eat the fruit from that tree.” When Eve ate it, she revealed her heart. She had commandeered God’s role of Judge. We’re no different. We’re obsessed with judging what’s good and bad, better and worse, valuable and worthless. (You might enjoy reading how Adam and Eve are analogous to God and mankind.)

Testifying at His Trial

This little passage about keeping promises comes directly from Numbers 30 (the whole chapter).

“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is The city of the great king. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil. (Matthew 5:33-37)

Although it appears to be a demand for the Jews to be honest and forth-right particularly in a court, and possibly in personal and business relationships, it’s actually Jesus’ instructions regarding a future event –future for the apostles. When the time for the transition of covenants was upon them (the crucifixion), they would be interrogated by those who claimed to be God’s authority on earth –the ruling council –the Sanhedrin. Here, He was telling them to not try to add credence to their testimony at His trial –but to merely state what they had observed.

That Numbers passage says so much more than “you must tell the truth.” It goes on to list both the exoneration for the unwitting to make over-zealous promises –and the restraints for those with hardened consciences. Peter is the poster-child for the former –promising to never deny Jesus. His case would be categorized as a daughter whose father discounted the offense. On the other hand, the members of the governing body –those angry conspiring snakes– would be likened to the divorced woman. She was unfaithful to her Husband so He divorced her –there is no relief from her sentence.

This next section is much more than a summary of the Law –and some prodding to inspire obedience to it.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

It should sound familiar. It’s what Isaiah was describing in his chapters 52 and 53. Jesus would be beaten so harshly at His dubious trial that His face was unrecognizable –not even looking human. He would be stripped of His clothing. He would carry His cross –not just for Himself (one mile) but for everyone (two miles). And He didn’t reject any of His tormenters.

“You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:33-47)

Isn’t this just what He did? Didn’t He come, live, die and rise again for everyone? With that in mind, why should anyone intentionally continue to elevate themselves to the role of Judge? That mindset begins in the heart where a person says “I’m right. . .” instead of “Life is difficult, but Lord show me Your way, I want to know You.”

Jesus summed up judging. That’s when a person claims to be right (righteous) in what he does or in what he thinks. “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That is the context of this verse, Matthew 5:48. Only God is qualified to judge good and evil –eternal value –righteousness. The New Covenant plainly takes judgment away from men and returns it to the rightful Owner.