Against popular modern-day misconception, the Sermon on the Mount was NOT originally delivered to the New Testament Church. It does not directly apply to us, though we can draw from its principles. Yet, we must be sure we correctly interpret the Sermon before we can be assured the principles drawn are sound. To put it another way, a New Testament believer must remember this Sermon has a specific, original context… and that original context is not Jesus talking to the Church. Moreover, it is not a spiritual road map for attaining citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven or for keeping that citizenship!
The Full Context
In his address, Jesus spoke to those of the Old Covenant. The original audience of Matthew 5-7 was still “under the Law,” seeing Jesus had not yet ratified the New Testament by his body and blood and resurrection. Besides this, the audience may or may not have believed Jesus of Nazareth is their long-awaited Messiah. The Gospels reflect, at this stage of his ministry, Jesus was revered only by some as a prophet, even by the disciples.
The Sermon on the Mount is corrective toward the Jews of Jesus’ day.
Instead looking for a Messiah, Who was sent to restore their inner persons from corruption, the mountainside audience members were looking forward to a physical Kingdom and its King.
Firstly, they assumed they would be Kingdom citizens based on their Abrahamic lineage and their relatively recent return from exile to a restored temple and restored Jerusalem. Hebrew ethnicity was wrongly seen as proof of citizenship for that future Kingdom (as John the Baptizer warned). Because they had returned from Babylon, they all believed in a soon-to-come Messiah, who would fully restore the Hebrew Theocracy. They believed the coming Messiah would overthrow gentile oppressors, ascend to the throne of David and establish sovereign regency.
Secondly, as we can observe from the context (5:17-20), they practiced a system of legalistic measures, learned from the Scribes and Pharisees, by which they judged their levels of righteousness (and subsequent courtier status level) with regards to the coming, physical Kingdom. Pharisees and Scribes and Sadducees had taught them how to meticulously calculate their life’s standing in accordance to the Law, and so, they looked forward to achieving positions of favor in the Kingdom, when finally Messiah would restore fully the Theocracy by becoming their King. They assumed adherence to that system of religious observance would bring them abundance within the coming kingdom’s economy. Their logic went something like this: “if I keep the Law by these Rabbinical traditions, then when Messiah comes, I will have great status in His physical Kingdom.” Thus, commoner and religious elite alike concerned themselves with their individual status in the soon-coming physical Kingdom of Heaven.
Matthew 5-7 is, therefore, Jesus’ corrective discourse on the difference between:
A. what the 2nd Temple Jews assumed about their status in the Kingdom of Heaven—particularly their merit-based religious traditions. [They would soon find out that their assumptions afforded them neither citizenship nor status in the Kingdom.]
B. what attitudes & actions would truly yield reward in the Kingdom of Heaven (and what measure is necessary to be a citizen).
Righteousness & Rewards of the Kingdom
Jesus begins his sermon with what are commonly seen as words of comfort (5:1-12). In actuality, He lays out in list fashion what measures truly yield reward in the Messianic era. If those Jews wished to be great in the coming Kingdom, here was their path to greatness.
Whereas the Old Testament Jews of Jesus’ day measured righteousness by what is done or not done (according to their traditions of the Law), Jesus teaches that traits such as meekness, humility, purity in motivation, peacemaking, mercy, goodness, kindness, and repentance are the characteristics truly worthy of reward in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Law was instituted to tutor us on how to treat each other righteously. The Jews of Jesus’ day had turned the Law into a standard of earning merit with God and claiming status above others (i.e. empty glory). But what Jesus teaches are the attitudes and actions that define righteousness. If you treat another poorly, then that is an act of unrighteousness. Treat someone well, and it is an act of righteousness.
Also, Jesus teaches if they did in fact believe He is their Messiah, then their belief in him would not go without persecution in this life and due compensation in the Kingdom. By this, Jesus made it clear to an Old Testament Jew that Faith in Him as the Messiah is the stamp of Kingdom citizenship and the Promise of reward in the Kingdom.
In the rest of the Sermon (5:21 – 7:27), the Lord Jesus teaches that unrighteousness is not measured by what actions are restrained or committed but by the evil one thinks and feels in the innermost part of his/her being.
The Hebrew Mission
Then (5:13-16), Jesus speaks about the original Old Covenant mission, which makes the Jews an outward-going chosen people of God—salt of the earth and light to the world. Originally promised to Abraham and magnified by the Prophets, the missional promise was that through Abraham all nations would be blessed and Israel would be a light to the Gentiles. Instead, an impotent nation of narcissists, looking inward upon themselves for the prominent status each should receive, Jesus tells his listeners they are salt of the earth and light of the world, meant to glorify their Father in Heaven by shining out good deeds done out in the gentile world, among mankind.
Then, in the setting of those reminders, Jesus’ focus turns to disarming his potential critics.
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
His well-timed, rhetorical tactic reveals some in the audience were inwardly accusing Jesus: “He preaches lawlessness and seeks to destroy Moses.” He did not seek lawlessness, but rather, fulfillment of the Law. That much is clear, not just by his flatly stating his intentions but also by the content of his message. The Law is fulfilled by selfless love for others. Mercy, purity in motive, humility, peacemaking, kindness, meekness, repentance: all of these are expressions of selfless love. Still, with one comment, Jesus squelches any objections to his renewed Messianic charge to the 2nd Temple Jews.
But, the next sentences are of superior importance. Many current-day readers like to separate verse 19 & 20 from their immediate context of 17 & 18. How soon those readers fail to see that Jesus not only continues his rhetorical tactics against potential objections; but he actually builds off of the previous statement. Verses 17 & 18 do not form a separate statement from verses 19 & 20. Rather, Jesus makes the assertion of verses 17 & 18, so that he can proclaim the statement in 19 & 20.
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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19-20)
Jesus’ point is this: …
Because He himself has come to fulfill (and not destroy) the Law and the Prophets, and because his message on fulfilling the Law is selfless love, then THOSE UNDER THE LAW should not feel relaxed; but rather, if they want to focus on being great in the Kingdom, then they must feel the unbearable weight of necessity to exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees—those who were considered the most legally righteous of their day and yet the most spiritually abusive.
Stunned and Stripped
Pause for a moment to think about the stunning effect, which would have swept across the Old Covenant audience that day. If you were a “holier than you” Scribe or Pharisee, then you would have felt the sting of Jesus calling you “less than” and not good enough for the Kingdom of Heaven. If you were a commoner, following the teachings of the Scribes & Pharisees, then you would have been more at loss.
Jesus had effectively alienated everyone in his Old Covenant audience, who was measuring their future status in the Kingdom by merit-based self-righteousness, those proclaiming their righteousness but treating others as far beneath them, those saying they love God but seeking their own advantage and glory among mankind.
Just then, everyone had been placed on the same level. No one was good enough, not for even entering the future Kingdom, let alone for being rewarded in it. In its shortest form, Jesus teaches his audience the following, “Because I alone fulfill the Old Covenant, you ALL need to recognize not one of you is righteous enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” And, in case there could be any doubt—he goes on with the rest of his sermon (5:21– 7:27), in which he constantly compares and contrasts what the Pharisees and Scribes teach to what is the real measure of righteousness.
The essential, all-encompassing point of the Sermon on the Mount is: “there is none righteous, no not one;” but, ‘I am your Messiah. Believe me. Follow me in selfless love.’
The Sermon on the Mount is NOT an “Intensification of the Law”
A popular mis-interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount claims Jesus “intensified” the Law, somehow raising it from a list of rabbinical traditions of “do’s and do nots” of the Law into a higher Law that restricts our thoughts and emotions and desires. But, the Sermon is a revelation by the Son of God of what always was the purpose for the Law …in contrast to just how far wrong were the teachers of Jesus’ day. Those teachers missed the essence of the Law—mercy, justice, humility, goodness, kindness, peacemaking, repentance, etc. Moreover, the Sermon shows Jesus (not Abrahamic lineage) is the access to the Kingdom, and also that, acts borne out of selfless love (not self-righteous glory) are the only deeds worthy of reward in that Kingdom.
The Sermon on the Mount Provides Principles for the Church
Clearly, the Jews of Jesus’ Day looked for a physical Kingdom; and Jesus never corrected them on that score.*
The principles the Church can take away are:
1. If you have accepted Jesus as the Messiah, then follow Him by living in selfless love. Do not make life about self-righteousness merit, thinking you are above others or earning and accumulating rewards for God’s coming, physical Kingdom. Yes, Jesus will reward us; but He will only reward believers who are selflessly loving: meek, humble, repentant, good, kind, peacemaking, pure in motives, willing to be ridiculed for Jesus’ Name.
2. We must not think ourselves better than the ethnic Hebrews (a.k.a. Jews).*
*Israel & the Church
Kean is moderate in his view of biblical covenants and distinctions between Israel and the Church. Currently, as always, those of Abraham’s faith (as distinct from physical lineage) are the children of promise (Romans 4; 9:4-8; Eph. 2:11-19; 3:4-6; Gal. 3:29). The Church does not replace national/ethnic Israel, but the Church is spiritual Israel, yet not to the elimination of God’s Plan for ethnic (national) Israel throughout the ages; which plan is, by national Israel’s “trespass” (or “rejection”) to bring about the redemption of believers from every non-Hebrew nation, clan/tribe, language (Rev. 7:9) …and also the resurrection of all believers at ethnic Israel’s “full inclusion” (or “acceptance,” Romans 11). Furthermore, every believer will know a reward and duty in Christ’s future kingdom, which will be made up of all peoples, glorified and non-glorified. Until that Day, through the Lord Jesus Christ, believing ethnic Jew and believing non-ethnic-Jew (together comprising the Bride of Christ) enjoy all the spiritual blessings promised in the New Covenant to ancient national Israel (the divorcee Wife of YHWH, remarried). Non-ethnic-Jew believers have been made one new Mankind with believers of Hebrew ethnicity through Christ Jesus, and now they are together the branches of the “Olive Tree” (Romans 11), until the fullness of the Gentiles is brought in (when “all [spiritual] Israel” is saved). Moreover, according to a proper interpretation of Romans 11 & 12, the Church (redeemed non-Hebrews + believing ethnic Jews) should be mindful that it is not better than the disbelieving, national/ethnic Hebrew people;
“For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11).
Modern, national Israel does not deserve carte blanche treatment from the USA or any other nation. But the modern nation of Israel—once having been recognized internationally as a state, despite the atrocities of war having birthed it—does deserve the same rights and privileges due any other (sovereign) nation, and the Hebrew people should be blessed by Christians… just as all Christians are to love both neighbors and enemies, as Jesus taught. That being said, reparations are warranted to all those, who were displaced by WWI & WWII and all wars subsequent.