This is the tenth installment in a yearlong series. You can find the previous installments here.
Matthew 5-7 The Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most popular passages in the New Testament. It is quoted, preached on, written about, and memorized. These three chapters have been poured over by each generation for two thousand years, and, even though it is one of the most read sections of the New Testament, it is possible for someone to notice something new each time he reads it. The Sermon on the Mount has much to glean from on the surface, but, if we dig beneath the surface, we find another layer of Christ’s message that puts everything God has done and is doing into a more wholistic perspective.
In this sermon, Jesus does not use parables, nor does he engage in dialog with anyone. Throughout the passage, Jesus teaches about many topics including those who are blessed, how his teaching relates to the Mosaic law, murder, anger, adultery, divorce, service, love, giving, praying, fasting, anxiety, judgement, and how to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Up to this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been setting up his ministry. He gets baptized by John the Baptist; he spends time in the wilderness being tempted by Satan; and he calls the first of his disciples. The Sermon on the Mount marks the beginning of Jesus’ teaching ministry. This discourse is the first of five discourses that Jesus gives throughout Matthew. It is in these discourses that Matthew records the teachings of Jesus.
This whole passage is brought to another level of depth with two verses. The first verse is actually found in chapter 4:17; it says “From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!””. The second verse is ““Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” These two verses are important because they set the stage for the purpose of Christ’s work and the overall purpose behind God’s work. We usually read this passage and focus on the moral teachings of Jesus. That is certainly part of Jesus’ message, but the message as a whole goes deeper than just morality. The kingdom of heaven transcends every society here on earth. Within this kingdom, there is no need for moral teaching because perfection has been completed. There is no need for society to improve in God’s kingdom, nor is there any room for improvement. The kingdom of heaven brings perfect harmony to all areas of life; the curse of sin no longer prevails within creation. This kingdom is described further in Revelation 21:1-4:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed. I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.
Then I heard a loud voice from the throne:
Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.”
God actually descends from heaven, not in a different or lesser form, but in all of his glory and takes up a permanent residence here on earth to reign forever. God and his creation are reunited once more in the perfect relationship he once had with it; the relationship between God and humanity is restored to what it was in the garden of Eden, to what he always intended it to be. With its inauguration, the kingdom of heaven is the re-implementation of Shalom on earth. This has been the purpose of God’s work throughout history. Since the fall of humanity, God has been working to restore his creation back to this level of harmony through his redemptive works. Through each of his actions, the world gets one step closer to the full culmination of the kingdom of heaven and God’s dwelling here on earth: The flood with Noah centered creation around purity and righteousness in a time when everyone was corrupt and evil; the exodus established a nation that was separate from all others, a shining city on a hill that was supposed to reveal God’s glory to the surrounding nations and bring them to his salvation; Jesus made the one time sacrifice that was required by God’s holy law so that humanity’s relationship with God could take another step towards restoration through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit- this allowed God to actually dwell inside his people instead of in a room within they camp or city; the apostles spread the message of salvation throughout the land of Israel and beyond its borders to all nations so that all of humanity could begin restoring its relationship with God. All of these actions were steps towards the ultimate redemption of creation and are leading up to the time when God will establish his kingdom in its fullest form.
Therefore, the implications of Christ’s proclamation that the kingdom of heaven is near are more than simply his arrival and his desire for us to live differently. He is saying that the kingdom of heaven, the very thing that the believers in the God of Israel longed for, is coming to earth. It is near in the sense that a portion of it was going to be implemented through the work of Christ, but the implementation of the whole kingdom, as seen in Revelation 21-22 would not happen until the end of this age.
The second verse of importance is Matthew 5:17. Here, Jesus divulges the reason he came was to fulfill the Mosaic law and the prophets. He did not come to abolish the law and prophets, nor did he come to replace them with a new law. He came to fulfill. He says this for two reasons. The first is to assure the devout Jews and religious leaders that he and the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses are the same. Jesus assures them that he is not a new random upstart with no connection to the the Jewish religion and traditions, nor is he starting a new religion as an offshoot of Judaism. The second matter of importance is this: the law was given so that the Israelites would know that humanity was lost and needed salvation, and that that salvation came from God through faith. The purpose of the law was so people could see the way God desired humanity to live- loving him and loving your neighbor as yourself- and the ways in which humanity did not live up to that calling. Furthermore, the law- which was the law of God’s holiness- stated that those who violated this calling must be punished because living outside the calling was unrighteous and could not be in harmony with God, hence the sacrifices. The purpose of Christ’s work was to offer a sacrifice that would satisfy the need for humanity’s punishment as prescribed in the law. By coming to earth to minister, die, be resurrected, and ascend back into heaven, Jesus offered a sacrifice that no one else could, and he made it possible for humanity to break the chains of sin that kept it from communing with God. The law was not merely the best God could do at the time. Rather, it was the means through which God revealed himself to the Israelites, his purpose for their lives, and the nature of the condition that humanity was stuck in. Jesus fulfilled the law because he offered the perfect sacrifice, and he brought the process of reconciliation between God and humanity one step closer towards completion.