One of the distinctive features of Matthew’s Gospel is that it gives us the fullest record of Jesus’s most famous sermon, i.e., the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Snippets of this discourse appear in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, too, but only in brief form. Matthew, however, gives us the fullest treatment of the sermon, covering three chapters and totaling over one hundred verses. Throughout the sermon, Jesus reveals what life in the kingdom of heaven looks like. We are likely familiar with much of it, from the timeless beauty of the beatitudes, to the emphasis on loving your neighbor, to the exquisite language of the Lord’s prayer, to the parable of the two men building houses, one upon the rock and the other upon the sand. Indeed, the greater part of Jesus’s sermon comprises the bulk of the church’s central tenets and beliefs. The Sermon on the Mount is, in a way, the vernacular of the church itself.
However, this does not mean that there is universal agreement on how to read and interpret this sermon. In fact, there are nearly half a dozen opinions on the best way to understand the Lord’s assertions. (1) Martin Luther asserts that the discord surrounding the Sermon on the Mount is the devil’s masterstroke versus the gospel of the kingdom. He writes: “The infernal Satan has not found a single text in the Scriptures which he has more shamefully perverted, and made more error and false doctrine out of, than just this one which was by Christ himself ordered and appointed to neutralize false doctrine. This we may call a masterpiece of the devil . . . For, as long as the devil lives and the world abides, he will not cease to attack this chapter.” (2)
The moral and ethical tenor of the Lord’s words lends itself toward an overly formulaic perspective, as though Christ’s sermon was meant to clue everyone in on how to “make it.” “If heaven is what you seek, here’s what’s required,” Jesus seems to say; “you have to be meek and righteous and merciful and peaceable and ‘pure in heart.’” There is a tendency, I think, to see these words as how men and women can attain perfection (as if that were a human possibility). “Just follow these 10 steps.” “Just implement these 12 things.” This, I’d say, has beclouded the legacy of this sermon in a mire of conditional language in which we are determined to achieve entry into the heavenly domain, as if that is all that Christ said and all that he intended. Luther would refer to this as a “nasty and maggoty” interpretation of the words of Christ, (3) a conclusion with which I am in wholehearted agreement.
To understand the Sermon on the Mount, one must keep in mind its essential premise. At its core, this sermon amounts to an extended commentary on the Ten Commandments. You know: worship God; don’t curse; don’t skip church; don’t disobey your parents; don’t kill; don’t steal; don’t lie, and don’t be jealous or promiscuous (Ex 20:1–17). Perhaps you can recite these commandments from memory, hearkening back to your days in Sunday School. Perhaps, too, you were told something to the effect that every good little boy and girl does their best to keep these commandments. But, as is evinced by Christ himself, the stakes are much higher than merely “good vs. bad.” Rather, what’s in the balance is a matter of eternal life or eternal death.
After Jesus’s opening description of those who are most “blessed” in his Father’s kingdom (Matt 5:3–11), he embarks upon his examination of the law. This he does by suppressing the apparent misconceptions regarding the design of his ministry and message. “Don’t think,” Jesus says, “that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). The public ministry of the Lord Jesus was still in its beginning stages and already misleading reports about what he was saying and doing were circulating throughout the regions of Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and beyond (Matt 4:25). Rumors were swirling about a “Man from Nazareth” who was going around healing the blind, raising the crippled, and liberating the oppressed.
Word on the street, though, was that this Galilean preacher was nothing but a troublemaker, one to be avoided at all costs. His talk of the kingdom did not mesh with his seemingly irreverent lifestyle. Jesus’s prevailing consideration of the immanence of the “kingdom of heaven” (Matt 4:17) did not seem to harmonize with his penchant for fraternizing with sinners, dining with lowlifes, and his audacious acceptance of a publican as a member of his entourage. From a certain point of view, Jesus’s body of work up to that point constituted an altogether different kingdom than what was being propagated by the religious bureaucracy of the day.
This, of course, was the predominant opinion of the Pharisees, that supremely devout group of Mosaic lawyers who had developed into the eminent authorities on all religious matters. We have a tendency, I think, to vilify and even demonize the Pharisees, as though they were some heretical group of biblical apostates. This simply is not the case. G. Campbell Morgan refers to them as “the Puritans of [the] Maccabean period in Jewish history.” (4) They rose to prominence during the four centuries of prophetic silence known as the “intertestamental period,” i.e., the historical divide between the Old and the New Testaments. Following in the footsteps of the prophetic scribe Ezra, the Pharisees took up the charge to uphold the precepts of Israel’s religious heritage during an age in which Israel herself was all but snuffed out. “The order of the Pharisees,” Morgan continues, “was an order of men who stood for purity in religion in an hour when Hebraism was threatened by contamination by Greek influence, which would have cut the nerve of the religion of Jehovah.” (5)
Despite what the Pharisees believed and advertised, Jesus was not intent upon deconstructing the fundamental tenets of the Old Testament law. Actually, he proceeds to do just the opposite.
As those who had found it their duty to maintain scrupulous reverence for Jehovah alone, Christ’s message certainly struck threatening tones in the ears of the Pharisees. In the Pharisaical mind, Jesus of Nazareth was nothing but an “anti-Moses” preacher, circumventing and countervailing the stipulations of religion with his stubborn emphasis on love, mercy, and forgiveness. But, as the Lord himself says, such a claim could not be further from the truth (Matt 5:17). “You’re utterly mistaken,” Jesus says. “I haven’t arrived to nullify the law or the prophets, but to bring it all to completion.” Despite what the Pharisees believed and advertised, Jesus was not intent upon deconstructing the fundamental tenets of the Old Testament law. Actually, he proceeds to do just the opposite.
Jesus definitively upholds all of the law’s demands. “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished” (Matt 5:18). His “truly,” or the King James’s “verily,” is indicative of the force with which these words ought to be taken. It was his truest, surest affirmation that the smallest letter of the law, even down to the tiniest stroke, must be maintained. “No part of the law,” comments John Broadus, “not the most insignificant letter, was to be set aside . . . ‘Not the dot of an i or the cross of a t.’” (6) All of the law’s demands were cogent for all who lived and wished to live eternally. Indeed, as Jesus continues, to diminish the law’s demands by a single degree was damning. “Therefore,” Jesus proclaims, “whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:19)
Mankind is not at liberty to “break” even the least of the law’s injunctions. The real force of the Lord’s declaration, though, hinges upon that word “break,” which might be better translated as “undo,” “loosen,” or “dissolve.” Whoever, then, loosens the demand of even the least of the law’s directives — and instructs others in the same course — is worthy of judgment, worthy of being reprimanded as “the least in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus affirms that his teaching was not meant, in any way, to dissolve what God’s holy law required. Indeed, rather, his errand was akin to the Pharisees’ resolve in conforming lives to the will of the Heavenly Father.
By now, though, Christ has likely successfully rebuffed the notion that he was “anti-law.” Up to this point, his sermon has not sounded like what the gossip had said. No talk of free forgiveness or disenfranchising the established religious order of the day. Instead, his rhetoric is virtuous. Those in the crowd would have likely been nodding in agreement as he spoke. Jesus’s assertions, while uncomfortably rigid, were not unfamiliar. In fact, the Pharisees might have even been caught applauding and “Amen-ing” a few times. Such is when Jesus decides to take it one step further: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).
I imagine Jesus pausing for dramatic effect after this verse. A low murmur, perhaps, spreads through the multitude. “Did he just say what I think he said?” the apostles asked puzzlingly. “Hold up, buster!” the Pharisees clapped back. This statement, no doubt, cast a pall on the entire crowd. Forlorn, confused, and defeated looks fell upon their faces. Jesus’s words were devastating. If the righteousness of the religious aristocracy wasn’t enough, then the messy religion of the commoner wasn’t making it either. What hope did the shepherds, fishermen, and handmaids have if the Pharisees weren’t making the cut? But Jesus was just getting started.
Mankind is not at liberty to “break” even the least of the law’s injunctions.
From there, Jesus proceeds to stress every point of the law, clarifying what it actually means to be righteous. The mere fact that you have not killed your brother is not the standard; it’s not being angry with them (Matt 5:21-22). Just because you haven’t actually laid in the bed with someone who was not your spouse doesn’t mean you are pure. The standard for purity is lust in your heart (Matt 5:27-28). Neither should you stop at loving your neighbor. The law requires that you love your enemies, too (Matt 5:43-44). In fact, to sum it all up, you have to be perfect. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). That is the standard.
If the multitude wasn’t demoralized before, they certainly are now. Jesus has proceeded to decimate the accepted criterion by which men and women were deemed “righteous.” The law by which men lived, and that which the Pharisees propagated, was inflexibly stringent, demanding a holiness that is unflinching, unceasing, and unbroken. No deviation from its stipulations was allowed. This, to be sure, was a harsh word of the Lord. Its coarse intransigence went down like vinegar. But such, I think, was Jesus’s point. His aim was to show that life according to the “letter of the law” isn’t just difficult, it is impossible. The letter always kills (2 Cor 3:6).
Jesus’s sermon, therefore, not only reinforces but also intensifies the law’s benchmark for righteousness. There is no pass for “effort” given; there are no participation ribbons. The measure is perfection (Matt 5:48; cf. Lev 19:2). The righteousness of the kingdom of heaven is not graded on a curve. The Messiah is not the “straight-A-student” who makes up for your pitiful failure to allow the instructor to readjust everyone’s grade according to a new rubric. It is a gross degradation of the work of God’s Son to assume that its consequence is a lowered standard. That is decidedly not the gospel of the kingdom of God.
Christ’s heavy-handed words are the point of his sermon. His objective was to raise the bar for what constituted “righteous living” in order to bring everyone to the recognition of the sheer impossibility of such an endeavor. The Sermon on the Mount was a discourse which “salted” the law by which men deemed they could make themselves holy and just and right with the God of heaven. Christ dismisses such a notion as categorically untenable.
The climax of Jesus’s discourse (Matt 7:12–27), then, leaves everyone with only two options: (1) to carry on assuming that the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven is within your ability to fulfill; or (2) to relinquish any such aspiration in the knowledge that the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven has already been fulfilled. Indeed, those are the only two options that have ever existed. Either you believe in yourself and your own competence to successfully bring about this righteousness which secures your entry into the kingdom, or you believe that it is impossible and you are never getting in, barring some unforeseen miracle.
I am reminded, again, of Martin Luther. Many are likely familiar with his infamous publishing of the ninety-five theses in 1517, by which he intended to dialogue with the church leaders at Wittenberg on the merits of the selling of indulgences. But, perhaps, more theologically resonant are the twenty-eight theses he published one year later in 1518. These statements are now known as Luther’s “Heidelberg Disputation,” in which he expanded on his original concerns and delved further into what it meant to fulfill the righteousness of the law.
“It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ,” Luther concluded. “He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ. For the righteousness of God is not acquired by means of acts frequently repeated, but it is imparted by faith, for ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’ (Rom 1:17), and ‘Man believes with his heart and so is justified’ (Rom 10:10). Therefore I wish to have the words ‘without work’ understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that his works do not make him righteous, rather that his righteousness creates works . . . In other words, works contribute nothing to justification.
Either you believe in yourself and your own competence to successfully bring about this righteousness which secures your entry into the kingdom, or you believe that it is impossible and you are never getting in, barring some unforeseen miracle.
The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done . . . For through faith Christ is in us, indeed, one with us. Christ is just and has fulfilled all the commands of God, wherefore we also fulfill everything through him since he was made ours through faith.” (7)
Luther’s conclusion is both profound and problematic. I say “problematic” because it rubs against our self-righteous predisposition. We cannot do squat with a law that requires absolute perfection, and we know it. Our self-saving brains determine, therefore, to lessen and redefine the demands of the law in order to make its stipulations bearable and doable. But to that, Christ and Luther would say the same thing. “You want to be clued into how to live the ‘perfect life’? You want the ‘secret to righteousness’? Okay, give up. Surrender. Admit you can’t do it. Declare spiritual bankruptcy. Because that’s the only way.”
I’d say this is what makes the gospel so offensive. We are so resistant to the idea that our works are powerless to effect salvation. We are self-saviors by birth. Indeed, that’s how the Pharisees operated. The law’s demand for righteousness was achievable so long as one measured up and checked all the boxes. For them, grace was nothing more than a heavenly plaster that filled in the gaps of their own righteousness.
But such reasoning amounts to nothing but an utter denial of grace itself. Jesus is not a heavenly mason who has been sent to apply the divine plaster of grace on our already righteous lives. Jesus is heaven’s incendiary who comes to demolish the accepted conventions by which we pretend we are righteous. When confronted with this standard of perfection, you and I are utterly impotent. Every single one of us, from the pious Pharisee to the staggering drunk, stand condemned, facing a yawning eternity of ruin.
That is, again, barring some unforeseen miracle. Enter: the gospel.
The good news of the kingdom which Christ proclaimed was the miracle of a fulfilled law, a completed righteousness, which was held out to the world on the basis of faith. “I did not come to abolish,” our Lord says, “but to fulfill.” (Matt 5:17) This was Jesus’s mission. “What we cannot do,” Alexander Maclaren says, “Christ has done for us, and does in us.” (8) The purpose of his coming, of his appearing at all in this sin-ridden realm, was to accomplish that which we never could have accomplished (the righteousness of the law) by likewise bearing the brunt of what we rightly should have borne (the rigors of the cross). Jesus’s ministry of fulfillment culminates at Calvary, where he cries, “It is finished.” And so it was that as Christ’s blood mixed with the mud beneath Golgotha’s cross, all righteousness was fulfilled. (Matt 1:22; 3:15; 4:17; 5:17)
Free from the law, oh, happy condition!
Jesus hath bled and there is remission;
Cursed by the law and bruised by the fall,
Grace hath redeemed us once for all. (9)