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The Sermon on the Mount (1)

J Gibson, Derby

(Mt 5.1-7.29; Mk 3.13-19; Lk 6.12-49)

It was in the vicinity of Capernaum, several months after the imprisonment of John the Baptist and immediately after the appointment of the twelve apostles, that Christ preached the Sermon on the Mount (Mk 3.13-19; Lk 6.12-16; 7.1). The night before, He "went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God" (Lk 6.12). Anticipating all that lay before the twelve, it is likely that the Lord Jesus prayed for their spiritual development and strengthening. He probably prayed specifically for Peter, foreseeing his fateful denial. And, He may well have expressed grief at Judas' eventual betrayal, which was necessary for the fulfilment of Scripture.

He knew the twelve, their strengths and their weaknesses. Knowing that although Simon was an impetuous man with time he would gain the spiritual stability necessary to be a strong pillar for the church at Jerusalem (Gal 2.9), the Lord surnamed him Peter (meaning a stone). Despite their hot-blooded, tempestuous natures, James and John (the sons of thunder), were also chosen. Matthew, a despised tax gatherer, had already left his money desk and devoted himself to Christ (Mt 9.9-13; Mk 2.13-17; Lk 5.27-32). Simon the Canaanite was a political zealot who, having turned his back on the political arena, now channelled his energies into Christ's cause. As a group, the apostles came from different backgrounds and had different temperaments, yet (with the exception of Judas Iscariot) they were fused together in their allegiance to Christ.

The place of their appointment was significant. High up in a mountain, they could see things below with perspective. They were apart from the crowds and alone with Christ, who, first and foremost, ordained them "that they should be with him" (Mk 3.14). After all, if they were going to be sent forth as His formal representatives, they needed to spend time learning from the Master. By pairing them, the Lord Jesus ensured that they would be stronger in their service, for, "if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken" (Eccl 4.12). And since they were going to herald the coming kingdom age, in which God's power will be seen (Mt 6.13), the authority of their preaching was to be endorsed by supernatural "power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils (demons)" (Mk 3.15; see Heb 6.5).

Having ordained the twelve, the Lord Jesus descended part way down the mountain, to an elevated level area. It was here that He was met by large crowds, who had come from Judæa, Jerusalem, Tyre and Sidon to hear His teaching and to be healed by Him. The whole scene was a foretaste of the future Kingdom, when there will be universal health (Is 35.5,6), and the King will reign in an exalted Jerusalem, to which all nations will flock to learn from the Lord (Is 2.1-3).

The Lord Jesus spoke to these crowds with the authority of a divine King who was offering His Kingdom to Israel. The Jewish context is seen throughout the message. The promised blessings of the beatitudes are entirely consistent with the blessedness of the messianic Kingdom predicted in the Old Testament. The Lord referred to the Sanhedrin (Mt 5.22), to the Jewish altar and sacrifices (Mt 5.23), and to synagogues (Mt 6.2,5). Many of His expressions were lifted from current rabbinical writings. For example, the phrase, "with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (Mt 7.2), "occurs in precisely the same manner in the Talmud (Sot. 1.7), and indeed, seems to have been a proverbial expression. The illustration…about the mote and the beam, appears thus in Rabbinic literature (Arach. 16b)".¹ Even the closing analogy of two builders occurred in a similar form in rabbinical writings. There is also reference to the persecution of past Jewish prophets (Mt 5.12), as well as to the giving of the Law at Sinai. In fact, the majority of the sermon unfolds the full meaning of the Law of Moses, while exposing its hypocritical misinterpretation by the scribes and Pharisees. These were men who focused on externals, made light of what they deemed to be the least important commandments (Mt 5.19), and craved men's praise. Christ corrected their deeply flawed view of the Scriptures.

Although Christians can learn much from this teaching, striving to attain its high moral standards, it is not primarily Christian truth. It does not mention Christ's death, offer eternal security, nor refer to the vital enabling role of the Holy Spirit in a believer's life. Christians look for Christ's coming at the rapture, not for His return as the King to reign. And if any Christian businessman quite literally gave to everyone who asked him for something, he would immediately be bankrupt (Mt 5.42).

Neither does the sermon relate directly to the Kingdom itself, so much as to the time leading up to its establishment. The teaching of the Sermon on the Mount will be most pertinent during the future tribulation. The sermon shows the spiritual calibre of genuine believers who will live during this time, whose righteousness will far exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. The Lord Jesus assured His disciples that, although their lives will be exceptionally difficult (Mt 7.13,14) and that they will be severely persecuted, they will enter into, and be rewarded in, the future glorious Kingdom (Mt 5.3-12,19,20; 6.1,2,4-6,18; 7.13,14,21). The unrighteous, who refuse to bow to Christ's claims, will be prevented from entering the Kingdom and be condemned to hell (Mt 5.20,22,29,30; 7.19-23).

As well as carrying the unique authority of a divine King, the Lord spoke with the moral authority of a teacher whose life perfectly exemplified His teaching. And, by using straightforward expressions and references to the natural world, the Lord Jesus ensured that His audience understood His words.

To be continued.

¹ Edersheim A. The Life and Times of JESUS THE MESSIAH.

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