Updated: May 2, 2022
“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. 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. Matthew 5:17-18
If there is any passage of scripture that causes both Christians and non-Christians alike to do some deep soul searching the Sermon on the Mount would be it. Jesus lays out the full measure of the law, the standard by which all humans will be judged, and if we're being honest with ourselves we find that in one way or another we fail to meet any point of this standard.
For context, remember that Jesus has been traveling Galilee teaching the gospel of the kingdom. Crowds have gathered to Him from all over the region consisting of both Jews and Gentiles. They have seen Him heal with great power and teach with authority.
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “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 meek, 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 are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:1-12
This first part of the sermon is commonly known as the Beatitudes. Usually, the way I've heard this passage approached is by the Pastor explaining one individual Beatitude at a time, first the blessing and then the requirement for that blessing. However, tonight, as I read them over, it struck me that as you move down the list of Beatitudes it is a perfect mirror of the life of a Christian from realizing that they need God's mercy to finding themselves persecuted for their faith and being commanded to be joyful in this.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit," those who have realized that on their own they are spiritually bankrupt and condemned to death because of their sins. "Blessed are those who mourn," when you recognized this spiritual poverty and your inability to stand righteous before God it should cause great grief! "Blessed are the meek," this recognition and grief lead the spirit to a place of humility knowing that only God's grace and mercy can save you.
In salvation, where your flesh craved the evil desires of your heart lusting after all sorts of things that would lead to your destruction, you have been given a new Spirit whose desires are for righteousness, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." Where you once held close the wrongs done against you, you realize that their fate would be the same as your own without Christ, and recognizing your mutual need for mercy, you are called to be merciful, "Blessed are the merciful." Your old heart dead in sin is reborn cleansed and transformed into a new creation pure without blemish, "Blessed are the pure in heart."
Walking in this newness of life, you are to proclaim the Gospel which is the only way for us to be reconciled to God and to find true reconciliation with one another, "Blessed are the peacemakers." But this life comes with a cost on this earth and we will be persecuted, we will be despised, we will be cast out... "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake." "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account."
The promise Jesus makes is that the Kingdom belongs to those who recognize their need for Him to fulfill the law on their behalf and accept the offer of grace that He gives while we are yet dead in sin. He promises that our mourning will be comforted and we will inherit the earth. He promises that our hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied and He will give us mercy. We shall see God and be called His children. He promises a great reward in Heaven for those who suffer for His Name and for righteousness.
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. Matthew 5:13
The purpose of salt is to flavor and preserve food, when it's not doing that we throw it on our roads and sidewalks to melt the snow. Either way, if you look at Christians as the salt of the earth, what is our purpose? We are to point to Christ and the mercy He offers.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16
Again, just as with the salt, the purpose of light is to dispel the darkness and reveal what once lay hidden in the shadows. As the light of the world, we reveal to those around us both how inadequate we are to live up to God's measure of righteousness and the grace we receive through Christ.
Now we're back to discussing that impossible standard of the law again:
“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. 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. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20
Somewhere in the distance, I can hear the Legalists cheering at the quotation, "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." However, before you get too excited or despair entirely because you know as well as I that we cannot meet this standard, I think we ought to carefully examine what Christ means by this. After all, not long after Jesus' death, Peter agrees that circumcision is not relevant for salvation and Paul teaches that there is no longer any such thing as clean and unclean foods for believers. Now both of these are major components of the law, not minor components so unless we're missing the point of this text then would that not mean Peter and Paul would be called among the least in the kingdom of heaven?!
The first thing we must note right away is that both the person who is relaxing the laws and the one who is teaching and keeping them to the letter are in the kingdom of heaven: one is least and the other is greatest. Your works have nothing to do with your salvation, indeed if they did then you would have to achieve on your own righteousness that, "exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees."
Then what did Jesus mean by this? We are not to discard or ignore the Law of God and the prophets, they are His Word and they will not pass away until all is accomplished.
Yet, Christ has also just said that He has come to fulfill the law.
What is the law?
Jesus goes on to the end of the chapter...
"You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment." He explains that murder in the eyes of God includes when we are angry with one another, when we insult one another, and when we make a judgment against another's soul by declaring them a fool. This is so serious that we are commanded when we realize that we are not right with someone in our lives, whether we are in the middle of worship or not, we are to go to them immediately and make it right.
"You have heard that it was said, 'Thou shall not commit adultery.' But Jesus tells them that even if they've looked at someone with lustful intent then they have committed adultery in their heart. Divorce unless done because your spouse was sexually immoral is also adultery.
They had been taught to swear and keep oaths, and not to break their word. However, Jesus tells them it would be better not to swear at all, but to simply say yes or no and mean what you say.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But Jesus goes on to tell them not to retaliate, turn the other cheek, if they ask for your robe then give your undergarment also, if anyone forces you to go a mile with them then go the extra mile, and if anyone seeks to beg or borrow from you then don't deny them. In other words, to those who mean to do you evil, turn around and do good for them. In fact, Jesus goes on, we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us!
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48
What a statement! Jesus' explanation of these things is nowhere near finished, we will continue to study the Sermon on the Mount for the next two chapters. If you're feeling a bit overwhelmed at this point, take comfort that those listening to Jesus teach this sermon were also astonished because He taught with authority unlike anything they had ever heard from their scribes.
Especially to this point, what I think our takeaway today should be a deep humility for understanding just how far short of God's Law we really fall and how great His grace is for us!