It seems that The Sermon on the Mount has a negative press in large segments of evangelicalism. Some insist it is pure law and its purpose, like the Mosaic Covenant, is only to kill (Lutheranism and variants of it). Others also see it as law but think its primary focus is to instruct believers during ‘the great tribulation’, a so-called period between the expected ‘rapture’ and ‘revelation’ of Christ (dispensationalism). Both viewpoints tend to create a fairly dismissive approach to the sermon. Certainly both undermine what seems to me to be the self-evident positive intention of the sermon which is to instruct those who belong to God’s Kingdom how to behave for God’s glory in a fallen world. In the words of the Sermon:
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 5:16 | ESV
I wish to argue that in describing life in the Kingdom its message is for believers today ( for we presently are part of Christ’s inaugurated Kingdom. Matt 11:11,12,26; 12:26-28; 13; Acts 8:12; Roms 14:17; Col 1:13). Further, we should not approach the sermon negatively for while it stresses continuity with the Old Mosaic Covenant which must not be downplayed equally there are discontinuities that are equally vital and raise it massively above the Sinaic covenant of law.
Context is of course king in interpretation; it rules everything. Firstly, we must understand the sermon then within the narrative of salvation-history. The Sermon on the Mount has a complicated place in terms of salvation history. Clearly with the arrival of Jesus, the long expected salvation has arrived; promise is giving way to fulfilment. The ‘law and the prophets were until John ‘; in Jesus the Eschaton (promised End-time salvation) arrived (Matt 11:13; Lk 16:16; 7:18-23). The good news is that the arrival of the kingdom is imminent (3:1) for its King, Messiah, the eschatological Prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15-19; Acts 3:17-26; 7:37), has arrived. He will be all Moses was and so much more.
Matthew is keen in his narrative to point out the parallels between the story of Messiah and Israel. For Messiah recapitulates in his life the experience of the nation. Like Israel, Jesus is God’s son who finds protection in Egypt. He leaves Egypt (Matt 2:15) and after baptism (the Red Sea cf. 1 Cor 10:1) is in the wilderness (3:13-4:1). There, like Israel, he is tested (ch 4:1-11). In ch 4:18-22, the twelve are chosen, the new eschatological Israel. Israel in the wilderness journeys to the mountain, Sinai. There, on that mountain, the covenant of law is given via Moses to the people. In Matthew, the first event after Christ’s desert testing and choosing of twelve is the sermon on the mountain. Matthew’s point is clear, Jesus is the new Moses, the new law-giver, the new Ruler of Israel. Time will reveal just how new and radical this new law, new era, new Ruler, the Mediator of a new covenant, really is.
Yet it is not the radical aspects that are initially stressed but the regular. Consciously taking the ground of the Prophet who was to come who would be like, but superior in authority to, Moses and who would succeed, support, yet surpass him, Jesus says:
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. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:17c-20 | ESV
Jesus, like John before him, has been preaching the good news, the gospel, of the kingdom of God (Matt 4:23). Both proclaim its arrival in him, the Messianic King. Its arrival is evidenced in his overthrow and expulsion of all that is evil (Matt 4:23-25; Deut 33:50-55; Lk 7:18-23) in the land and by instruction for the eschatological Israel, the disciples, how they should do so in their lives (5-7). We should note that the gospel here is the arrival of the rule of God. It is God’s will being done on earth as in heaven (Matt 6:10). This shows clearly that we cannot divorce gospel from obedience as some wish to do today; to do so creates a false dichotomy. To call indicatives gospel and imperatives law is a Lutheran distinction without biblical warrant and leads to confusion. The rule of God by its very nature implies imperatives. Thus the Sermon on the Mount is a snapshot of Kingdom obedience in this present age (the sermon assumes a fallen world, a rejected Messiah, and not-yet-perfect sons of the kingdom). It is life in a not-yet-fully-conquered eschatological Canaan (Deut 33:50-55). Life in Canaan involved a restatement of the law, the deuteronomy, without obedience to it all would be forfeit. Jesus lays down the same dynamic in the sermon; hearing and doing is the way to inherit the land or earth, to realise the eschatological Kingdom, and to prove to be a son of the kingdom (7:15-27).
In the Kingdom, the time of fulfilment has arrived. The first thing Jesus is anxious to establish is the positive relationship between the old and the new. He wishes to make clear the continuity between ‘the law and the prophets’ and the eschatological (promised End-time) Kingdom. His principal point is that the old is not slighted or disparaged in any way in the arrival of the new. He has not come as some iconoclast or subversive who disdains the past. The new does not disparage the old, it is its denouement. Christ does not abolish the old, he does not oppose it, he fulfils it; in the new the old is accomplished. All that the old was about, all it aspired to and anticipated, finds its fulfilment in the new.
In the realised Kingdom the old is neither disparaged nor diluted nor dismissed. It is dignified, deepened, and discharged. In the new covenant the perpetuity of all the old stood for is guaranteed (Ex 12:14; 31:16; Roms 3:31).
Yet, even in this clear statement of continuity a signal is given that continuity will not be a wooden literal conformity to the old. The key word is ‘fulfil’. It, or semantic equivalents, is often used in the NT to describe the inaugurated kingdom. Only a study of the many NT texts that discuss fulfilment give us a full picture of what fulfilment looks like and these present fulfilment in a kaleidoscope of ways. We cannot expect fulfilment to be found in its full clarity here in this sermon for Jesus is addressing people before the cross, resurrection and Pentecost. Further, he is addressing Jews who until his death and resurrection must live under law (as Messiah did). Thus we have references in the sermon to presenting oneself to the Sanhedrin, leaving gifts at the altar, etc. Any competent hermeneutic must make allowances for this historical ambiguity. Yet, even here, in this incipient description of the Kingdom, and elsewhere in the gospels (Matt 9:17; Mk 7:19), we discover that fulfilment does not mean facsimile and realisation isn’t replica. Post-resurrection every aspect of the law and every prophecy is still honoured and fulfilled but NOT necessarily literally. The NT writers give us the spiritual principles for interpreting both the law and prophets, for both the law and the prophets were prophecy, bearing witness to Christ and the coming kingdom, principles first taught by Jesus himself (Matt 11:12;Lk 24:27,44; Jn 5:39; Roms 3:21). Prophecy by its very nature is provisional. It is also opaque. Fulfilment or accomplishment, as noted above, takes place in a rich diversity of ways that often the initial prophecy merely hinted at. Shadow gives only an outline, a silhouette of what is real and substantial (Col 2:17; Hebs 8:5).
The transition from ‘the law and the prophets’ to Kingdom fulfilment is essentially the transition between the old covenant and the new covenant where again we observe continuity and discontinuity. The continuity between the covenants is clear in Scripture; the law that the Mosaic Covenant demanded, in the New Covenant is written on the heart (Jer 31:31-34).
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:31-34 | ESV
On the one hand the demands of the law transfer in essence from one covenant to the other and so the old is upheld in the new (continuity). But in another sense, the covenant involves significant and far reaching changes. In the new covenant, the eschatological covenant, all sins are forgiven and the law, previously written on tablets of stone, is now written on the heart (cf 2 Cor 3). This makes it a superior covenant (Hebs 8:6-13). Elsewhere we discover it means a new life, a new heart, and the indwelling, empowering Spirit (Ezek 11:19; 16:60-63; 36:22-38; 37:1-28). Unlike in the old covenant, God is known by all and not a few (Jer 31:34). The old was merely a pallid reflection of this massively more glorious reality (2 Cor 3:7-11); the moon to the sun. The Sermon on the Mount assumes this new covenant relationship; God is assumed to be known for he is addressed as Father, a distinctly gospel relationship (Matt 5:16, 6:1,4,8,9,16,26,32 etc).
It is within this unique historical context and this tension between continuity and discontinuity in fulfilment that, ‘for truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished’ must be understood; in the new the old is treasured even as it is translated and transfigured. It is this treasuring or valuing of the law that Jesus deals with next. He says, ‘Therefore whoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven’. Jesus, in the sermon demonstrates the truth of this. The Pharisees, feeling the human impossibility of the law, and having with the scribes assumed responsibility for teaching the law, interpret it in ways that make it less demanding, less onerous. They found ways to water it down and to circumvent its demands. It is these he addresses when he says, ‘you have heard it said’. The scribes and Pharisees ‘relaxed’ the import of the law. Of course, they were not the last to water down God’s commands, many teachers of the church have done so over the centuries, in fact, it is the temptation of all. In fact, I suspect much of the present clamour to insist we are not ‘under law’ is just another manifestation of this impulse; for many it is not an attempt to make clear that we are not under law in the sense of not under the mosaic covenant as a way and rule of life (as is certainly the case) but that we are not under any kind of command or rule at all. The suggestion of being under the authority of another and having to obey commands of any kind our egalitarian and self-determining generation finds objectionable. Yet this sermon makes clear that such commands do exist as does the rest of the NT (Matt 28:20; Jn 15:14; 1 Cor 14:37; 1 Tim 4:11; 1 Jn 5:3; 1 Cor 7:19; 1 Tim 5:21; Gals 6:16).
Jesus, by contrast (but I say unto you) gave the law its full weight. He shows it calls for a righteousness beyond that which the scribes and Pharisees taught and displayed. He brought out that murder was not simply physical killing but an attitude of heart; he demonstrates in the sermon the spiritual depth of the law. Indeed, he takes the commandments of the law and gives them a breadth and depth that transforms them into commandments that flow from himself; he is the Prophet that Moses anticipated who would succeed and supersede him (Deut 18:15-19; Acts 3:19-26), the King-Prophet Law-giver (Ezek 37:24-28).
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— 16 just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ 17 And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.
It would no longer be the Ten Words of Sinai but the law of Christ (Messiah), something of richer value and full revelation. And what is more, what he teaches he lives in his life; he is par excellence the one who ‘does them and teaches them’ and who therefore has the moral right to be ‘ called great in the kingdom of heaven’. He in all ways magnifies the law and makes it glorious (Isa 42:21). Jesus is the scribe who ‘has been trained for the kingdom of heaven and is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Matthew 13:52 | ESV
Thus, whatever we mean by being no longer ‘under law’ what we do not mean is that the life of godliness and holiness which the law required is in anyway less under the gospel. If anything ‘fulfilment’ aspires to a godliness beyond what the law, certainly in letter, required. It involves, among other things, loving your enemies and laying down your life for them, turning the other cheek, and going the second mile; it involves living like and identifying ourselves with a rejected Christ and reflecting the graces of our Heavenly Father (Matt 5:11, 38-48)
Thus the Sermon on the Mount models for us, at least in embryo, how the OT law is fulfilled in eschatological Kingdom living. All that the law and prophets reached for is accomplished in the Kingdom. Yet, I repeat, there is no wooden continuity. We can and should go back to the law and, as with all Scripture, find it profitable for understanding many aspects of Christian doctrine concerning Christ and his work. Equally it is profitable for training in righteousness, but, and this qualifying preposition is very important, only if we understand it through the prism of redemptive history, only if we grasp its metamorphosis in Christ. If we fail to do this we will soon become enslaved to the OT law and begin to live as OT Jews (as some advocate we ought).
Indeed, If we place ourselves under the OC in any sense (as Reformed folks come uncomfortably close to doing by making the law a rule of life) then we shall soon find ourselves struggling with assurance of salvation, having a slave-mentality to obedience, and feeling constantly wretched by our failure before its demands; we shall fall from grace (Gals 3:1-3; 5:1-4; Roms 7; 8:14-16).
The law, as Jesus speaks of it in the sermon, was the Old Covenant (not every biblical command as many insist) addressed to man in the flesh (Roms 7:1-6), but we are in Christ, new covenant believers, in the Spirit and not the flesh (Gals 3,4; Roms 8; ). We serve in the new way of the Spirit and not the old ways of the flesh. God’s commands do not come to us as a letter that kills (as the law did) but, by the Spirit, as words of life. This is where Lutherans and some who follow their law/gospel dichotomy go so very wrong. They insist on approaching the imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount and indeed any biblical imperative (those from the OT understood through the prism of Christ and redemptive history) as if they carry old covenant conditions, that is, as if they, the hearers, were still in the flesh. Little wonder they are viewed so negatively. Little wonder they kill. The flesh hates God and hates any command he gives (Roms 8:7,8). The flesh always wriggles and squirms at anything that smacks of commandment. But Christians approach every command from God from the standpoint of faith. They hear every command as the voice of the Spirit and rely on him to enable. The Spirit causes them to rejoice in the command. It is after all an expression of God’s good, acceptable and perfect will. They rejoice where it exposes sin they need to rout out (Roms 8:13,14) and rejoice for the light it sheds on the will of God for the regenerate, Spirit-filled life, finds that will not burdensome but a delight; what God commands the renewed heart covets (Ezek 11:9,10; 36:25-31;Psalm 1:2; 199:47,48,127). The great need is to approach the sermon through Christian eyes, to hear it with spiritual ears. When we do this it is not a law that kills (it cannot, for believers are already dead) but as words leading into life (Jn 6:63; 12:49,50; Roms 8:6, 10,13).
In fact, if we place ourselves in any sense under the OC of law (whether as a weapon to kill or a rule for life) we shall find ourselves dismayed for we will soon discover that not only are the demands of the Old Covenant beyond us because of our sinfulness they are also beyond us because the conditions required to keep them no longer exist. There is no temple, no sacrifice system, no levitical priesthood, no cities of refuge etc.. The Old Covenant was morally finished at the exile, dispensationally finished at the cross, and had its final nails driven into its coffin at the destruction of Jerusalem and the dismantling of all that was integral to covenant-keeping (Hebs 8:13). It is gone, and gone forever: yet it lives on in the only way that matters, in the gospel, in the new covenant (Deut 30:4-14… a description of the eschatological new covenant Israel. Cf. Roms 10:5-16; Roms 8:3,4).
It is from this perspective we must approach the sermon, as new covenant life in Christ. To be sure, only when the Spirit is given and full gospel status is understood will what before the cross is sometimes considered hard and difficult to bear (Matt 19) be understood as an easy yoke and light burden unlike the old covenant of law (Matt 11:28-30; 1 Jn 5:3). But these post-Pentecost eyes and ears are ours. We, of all people should approach the ethical demands of the sermon and other Biblical instruction in righteousness as they are intended, not as an impossible law to crush and condemn but as a Kingdom lifestyle to affirm and embrace. To look at the sermon is to see Jesus and the desire of every believers heart is to be like him. In and through gospel realities this is possible.
To walk and run the the law commands
Yet gives me neither feet nor hands
But better news the gospel brings
It bids me fly and gives me wings
Finally, I should point out that the sermon is about Kingdom living. If we want to find out how we may by grace enter the Kingdom and the source of the empowering grace to live Christlike within it we must look elsewhere. Here the good news shows us the blessed life of the Kingdom. We must read on in the gospel to discover the good news of the cross and resurrection. But we must never think there is something sub-Christian about this sermon, something essentially legalistic. Rather we read it remembering the words of the resurrected Christ to his disciples before returning to heaven.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20 | ESV