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By Stephen Green. (First published in Christian Voice August 2003)
Possibly the greatest teaching sermon of the Lord Jesus is found in the 5th, 6th and 7th chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount, as it is known, was given, as it appears, to a large multitude of followers, during a time when the Lord was in the middle of choosing the Twelve (and subsequently the Seventy).
There are parallels with the shorter Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, not the least of which is the similarity of the opening remarks.
Matthew has: "When he was set, his disciples came unto him: and he opened his mouth and taught them," and Luke says: "He lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said," both implying that the Lord had sat down and that the others were standing.
NOT A NEW LAW
There have been attempts to show that the Sermon on the Mount is a statement of a new law, one of a different kind to the law given by Moses and the Prophets. Something is made of the mountain location, as if Mount Sinai with its Ten Commandments is abolished in a new Mount with new commandments.
This view firstly runs up against the fact that Jesus sat down. In Jerusalem, Jesus condemned the Scribes and Pharisees for hypocrisy, but in Matt 23:2 said that they "sit in Moses' seat: all therefore that they bid you observe, observe and do ...". This very act of sitting denotes the passing of a judgment upon a question of the law. When the Lord sat down, it was to give a ruling on matters of the law of God. That is what the scribes and Pharisees did, in a system which the Lord commended. The difference is that when He did it, it was with greater authority than they (Matt 7:28-29, John 5:27).
Secondly, the Lord Jesus could not change the law because He was under the authority of His father (Luke 2:49; John 5:19,30), and God changeth not (Mal 3:6, Heb 13:8). The moral law of God in both its personal and judicial applications is a reflection of the very character of God. It can only change if God changes. The physical laws which hold the universe together have not changed under the New Covenant either, which is useful, to put it mildly. If the law of gravity, for example, had been abolished by the Lord Jesus, our world would literally blow apart.
Thirdly, as Jesus is God incarnate, and remains the same, and since, as the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, He wrote the Law of God in the first place, He will not be about to change it in His incarnation. The ceremonial and sacrificial law is a different matter, of course, being a prophetic picture of the once-for-all perfect sacrifice of Christ Himself (Heb 9:6-15).
MESSIAH BRINGS JUDGMENT
Fourthly, the 'Servant Songs' of the Prophecy of Isaiah do not once have the Messiah changing the Law. (See Isa 42:1-9; 49:1-9; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12; 60:2-3 and 61:1-3.) Instead, He brings 'judgment to the Gentiles', 'the isles wait for his law', and He is 'a light of the Gentiles' (Isa 42:1,4,6) His ministry is to suffer in our place and heal us 'with his stripes' (Isa 53:5).
Fifthly, the Lord Jesus said Himself that He had not come "to destroy the law or the prophets", (Matt 5:17) which is Rabbinic code for the Hebrew Bible, which we now know as the Old Testament. The Lord would not change so much as one jot or tittle from the law, but would fulfil it. There is a sense in which He fulfils it by keeping it fully. A lot of publicity has been given recently to the popular "What would Jesus do?" bracelets. What Jesus would do firstly and foremost is to keep the Law of God.
LAW AND THE PROPHETS
He would also fulfil the prophecies of the sacrificial system, according to the law of God, in which there is no remission of sins without the shedding of blood (Lev 17:11). But if He was going to abolish the Law and the Prophets, as some say, then it is a deceitful semantic twist to claim to be fulfilling them, and our Lord Jesus would not stoop so low. What He says, He means.
Finally, the Sermon on the Mount is not a new law because everything said in it by the Lord Jesus is either a restatement of or a ruling on an Old Testament scripture. This is most plainly seen in the teachings recorded from Chapter 5 verse 21 to the end of Chapter 7; Jesus expounds the law explaining its heart application and also its practicalities. It is an astonishing setting forth of eternal truth at the personal level, challenging and uplifting.
The Old Testament is also the foundation of the Beatitudes which open the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes, nine in number, seem to be so wrapped up in the character of Jesus that the mere suggestion that most of them are Old Testament scriptures at root appears to some as almost an insult to His ministry. Yet that is the truth. Looked at another way of course, His knowledge of the Scriptures is simply phenomenal, as befits the Author of it all.
The Beatitudes are all different, and yet all the same, as each represents a different facet of utter dependence upon God. They lead up to the encouragement of verse 12, and even that verse has a root in God's promise to Abraham: "I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward." (Gen 15:1) Their beauty lies in their simplicity, their grouping together and their culmination. It is worth looking at each of the beatitudes and their Old Testament sources in turn:
POOR IN SPIRIT
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matt. 5:3
The Psalmist writes:
The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart, and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit. (Psalm 34:18; cf Ps. 51:17) and from Proverbs:
There is that maketh himself rich that hath nothing; there is that maketh himself poor, yet hath great riches. (Prov 13:7 cf 19:1, 22:2-3, 28:6)
In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus opens by looking up at His disciples and saying, literally: "Blessed poor." The same Greek word ptochos (Strong 4434) is used. There is an other Greek word for 'poor' which is penes, but although the penes is poor, he earns his bread by daily labour. The ptochos by contrast is entirely dependent on the grace and mercy of others. Penes has nothing superfluous. Ptochos has nothing at all. The word expresses our complete dependence on the grace of God for all our needs.
BEAUTY FOR ASHES
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. (Matt. 5:4)
Compare these verse from the prophet Isaiah: ... to comfort all that mourn; To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; ... (Isa. 61:2-3) And from Jeremiah: I will turn their mourning into joy and will comfort them (Jer 31:13)
BLESSED ARE THE MEEK
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. (Matt. 5:5)
That Beatitude is a quotation of Psalm 37: But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. (Ps. 37:11) Indeed, an earlier verse in the same psalm says: For evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait upon the Lord. they shall inherit the earth. (vs 9) Isaiah prophesies the Lord Jesus doing exactly what He did in that very word: The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; (Isa. 61:1) Meekness does not mean weakness, of course. Moses was the meekest man on all the earth, (Numb 12:3) but he had the strength of character to withstand his brother Aaron many times.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Matt. 5:6
This verse is a great comfort too, when all about seems unrighteous. That those of us who hunger and thirst after righteousness shall be filled has been a constant theme of scripture: The Lord will not suffer the soul of the righteous to famish: (Prov 10:3); the desire of the righteous shall be granted (Prov 10:24); in the way of righteousness is life (Prov 12:28).
Ho, every one that thirsteth come ye to the waters (Isa 55:1)
Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, my servants shall eat, but ye shall be hungry: behold, my servants shall drink, but ye shall be thirsty: behold, my servants shall rejoice, but ye shall be ashamed: (Isa. 65:13) ).
At the same time, we need to remember at this point that the beatitudes are not to be taken in isolation. If we hunger and thirst after righteousness, it does not mean we are excused being meek, or don’t need to mourn. The Lord Jesus is setting out a way of approach to God, in which we acknowledge our utter dependence upon Him and bring our whole character before Him to be broken and restored in His image.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (Matt. 5:7) Compare with:
Have mercy upon me, O Lord; for I am weak (Psalm 6:2) He that despiseth his neighbour sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he. Pro. 14:21 Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard (Prov 21:13) For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6; cf Micah 6:8)
The necessity of being merciful in order to gain the mercy of God is one which Jesus develops in the Lord's Prayer (Matt 6:12,14) and the parable of the debtors (Matt 18:23-35). Only in the Gospels do we read in the Bible of such an itinerant teaching ministry as that of our Lord. The ordinary Pharisees were also travelling around and teaching, but the value of Jesus Christ Himself teaching the people for their benefit and that of succeeding generations is a great treasure which must never be underestimated. That God Himself would spend time in His creation, taking pity on those He has created and then to die for them is grace beyond measure.
PURE IN HEART
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. (Matt. 5:8)
See the Psalms: Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart. (Ps. 15:1-2) Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord, or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart. (Psalm 24:3-4a)
It is a sobering thought that worship of God is not to be undertaken lightly; the Lord God requires us to have clean hands and a pure heart. The pure in heart have also a need for God and His Holy Spirit to keep them close to His own heart.
CHILDREN OF GOD
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (Matt. 5:9) Again, peace is not a New Testament invention:
When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it (Deut 20:10). Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it. (Ps. 34:14) For he will speak peace unto His people (Psalm 85:8). The way of peace they know not, and no judgment in their goings; they have made them crooked paths; whosoever goeth therein shall not know peace. (Isa 59:8)
The peacemaker is not simply someone who stops feuding, but a believer who has experienced the peace of God and seeks to bring that peace to others. The concept of God as 'our father' is not entirely alien to the Old Testament, as Malachi asks, "Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us?" (Mal 2:10) but the Lord Jesus, as the only begotten Son of the Father, lays much more emphasis on God as Father than do the Prophets.
PERSECUTED FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad; for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matt. 5:10-12)
These three verses are the culmination of the Beatitudes. In a sense, all that went before was relatively passive and private. To be poor, mourning, meek, merciful, seeking righteousness and peace, and purity of heart, are still difficult enough virtues and possible only with God's gracious help. But to stand up actively and prophecy righteousness in a hostile world is to invite persecution for the sake of Christ. It is at that point that we can take heart from the promise of the Lord Jesus: "Theirs is the kingdom of heaven" and "Great is your reward in heaven." Once more, it was ever thus:
But they mocked the messengers of God and despised his words and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people (2 Chr 36:16) O LORD my God, in thee do I trust, save me from all them that persecute me, and deliver me. (Ps. 7:1)
May God give us of His grace and His Holy Spirit to follow all the Beatitudes in our lives, but especially give us the courage to be prepared to be persecuted for righteousness' sake. In these days, those who stand against the values of the world will face affliction more and more. Thank God that Jesus promises to be ever with us: "Persecuted, but not forsaken" (2 Cor 4:9)