I’ve been looking at the sermon on the mount starting with the beatitudes, then Jesus declaring not that his followers will become salt and light to the world, but that we are salt and light, adding flavor and shining like a light house from the sea, guiding the lost home. Our lives will look different because we are different, changed from the inside out by Jesus Christ, not just cleaning the outside of the cup so it looks clean to those looking on while still being a hot mess on the inside.
The thing about the Sermon on the Mount, or as Dallas Willard calls it, the discourse on the hill, is that it is indeed a sermon, or one unified discourse. Or today, we might call it a talk, because it is not preachy, and is much more packed with information and truth than what we would call a sermon today. The point here is that the Sermon on the Mount is organized around one purpose and develops a single line of thought. It is not all over the place. It is not a collection of sayings or wisdom collected randomly and put together by an editor. This is how we have seen it and treated it, but it is not what it is.
The result of our misunderstanding on this point is that what we know to be Jesus most important text is also His most indecipherable. Because we don’t see the Sermon as developing one line of thought but all over the place, we are left without the clear and comprehensive message for life which its author (Jesus Christ) intended.
Because we don’t read the sermon as a unified talk, because we take its pieces as independent sayings, we read them as “laws” telling us what we are and are not “to do”. We read the sermon and think Jesus was giving us “laws” which are even more impossible to keep than all the laws Moses prescribed on Mt Sinai and through Leviticus. And we think Jesus is using these laws to show us how truly unworthy for the kingdom we really are, and then we will have no choice but to turn to Him for grace and forgiveness. Because, of course, to read this any other way and actually pick up what Jesus is laying down would be to chase “works-based” righteousness, and maybe even leave this world, which God so loved that He gave his only begotten to save and not condemn, a better place.
So what is the single, unified purpose of the Sermon on the Mount? It’s to show us what the kingdom heart looks like. It’s to guide us to have pure hearts which produce good fruit. It’s to help us come to realistic and hopeful terms with our lives here on earth by clarifying the nature of the kingdom into which Jesus is inviting us when He says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:17 ESV.
The Sermon is not one disconnected statement after another. Each portion of the talk builds upon what came earlier. Each successive part must be interpreted and understood in light of this singular purpose, and what came before.
Jesus is not giving us a bunch of new laws to show us we can’t make it without him (we already know that!). He’s giving us perspectives on the good life of love, power, truth and grace we can lead in his kingdom. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:17 ESV.
So let’s continue to look at the greatest teaching from the smartest man who ever lived.
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. Jesus is flipping the world upside down with this sermon. He’s told all these different groups, starting with the poor in spirit, that what was previously thought to be unavailable to them is precisely completely available. Where they were thought to be cursed, Jesus has declared them blessed. Not only are they blessed, but they are the salt and light of the world through which all will be blessed. So, of course, they might think Jesus is overturning the law to which they could not attain, the law which certain religious types used to specifically exclude them from kingdom life. Just as we still believe (and live) that Jesus has overturned and nullified the law. But Jesus says, no, I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. What exactly is he saying? What does it mean to fulfill the law and the prophets? What Jesus is saying to us here, and if we don’t take it as part of this greater talk it will be quite cryptic, is that he is leading us in such a way that our very lives will be the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets were attempting to do. “”Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” Matthew 23:25-26 ESV. The trouble is, and has always been, that simply attempting to follow a bunch of rules or laws does nothing to change the inside, does nothing to change the heart from which everything else flows. We can all follow the right rules, wear the right clothes, drive the right car, say the right things. We can make it all look real pretty on the outside. But if we’re still dirty on the inside, then nothing has really changed. We’re just being the hypocrites the world assumes we are anyway.
Jesus did not, as his followers on the mountain actually hearing him and we who claim to follow him today believe, abolish the law. He came to fulfill all the law and prophets ever attempted to do. He came to re-found the world on an axis of love. Love of God, love of self, love of neighbor, love of enemy. Love God and love your neighbor. And your neighbor is anyone you meet on a daily basis whom you can help.
This is the fulfillment of all that Abraham was looking for. All the law given to Moses. All the prophets who came after. A just, fair, and righteous society, not based on anger and accusation, not based on force, not based on the power to kill, but based on the love of God as shown through his people. And that is what Jesus is doing in this sermon, giving us a picture of what it looks like to be kingdom people with kingdom hearts, to be actually changed on the inside so that the outside is naturally clean as well.
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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And that us what it means to exceed to righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. All the rules and laws they created to claim to perfectly follow the law of God, we can naturally bear that fruit once we’ve been spit shined on the inside by the love of Christ. Just because He let me in, just because he let you in, doesn’t mean he’s overturning His law. It means that we, as His followers, will fulfill his law by our words and our deeds which flow naturally from our changed hearts. By our lives we will initiate a just, fair, peaceful society. We will show the world what it means to love God and love neighbor – even when our neighbors don’t love us back. We will forgive them their trespasses against us. We will pick up our cross and follow Jesus. In doing so, we will make disciples of all the nations, bringing about a world in which there will be no more sorrows, no more tears, and war no more.
“”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. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 5:17-20 ESV