In this presentation, the outline of the sermon developed by Henelee Barnette, in his book, ‘Introducing Christian Ethics’ will be followed. He made four major classifications of the sermon. These are as follows: (a) Christian character (5:3-12); (b) Christian influence in the world (5:13-16); Christian conduct (5:17- 7:12); (c) Test of Christian character (7:13-27) and Conclusion. We live in a world where wickedness and the erosion of law and order is prevalent. Therefore, the teaching of the subject under investigation is a non negotiable factor for a well ordered society.
Christian Character (The Beatitudes) Matt. 5:3-12
This section of the sermon has been described as the beatitudes. The beatitudes present the essential elements of Christian character and portray the true righteous of the kingdom. The truly righteous are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted for righteousness sake. To those persons Jesus ascribed the term blessed.
These beatitudes have been classified by Bible expositors under different formats. One such classification is as follows: (a) Right attitude; (b) Right action; (c) Persecution. D. A. Carson, using this form of classification commented on the beatitudes. He observed that the first four beatitudes portrayed Jesus’ teaching on right attitude. Poverty of spirit, according to Carson, is the personal acknowledgement of spiritual bankruptcy. It is the conscious confession of unworthiness before God. As such it is the deepest form of repentance. Mourn can be understood as the emotional counterpart of poverty of spirit. It is a personal grief over personal sins as one is exposed to the purity of God. It can also be as a result of sin in the society. Meekness on the other hand has to do with a person’s relationship with God and others. It is the controlled desire to see the other’s interests advanced ahead of one’s own.
Carson observed that ‘the man marked by poverty of spirit (5:3) who grieves over sin, personal and social (5:4), and approaches God and man with meekness (5:5) must also be characterized as one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness (5:6). Righteousness refers to a pattern of life in conformity to God’s will’. Therefore a person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness hungers and thirsts for God’s will. This is the kind of attitude that Jesus expects of his disciples.
The second category is described as ‘right action’ and they have been represented by the following beatitudes: the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers. Jesus says believers must be merciful, or compassionate and gentle, especially towards the miserable and helpless. Also, purity of heart is the indispensable pre-requisite for fellowship with God. Purity is what Jesus demanded not outward conformity of rules. The seventh beatitude does not talk about those who yearn for peace, but about the peacemaker. The disciples of Jesus Christ must be peacemakers in the broadest sense of the term. The Christian’s role as peacemaker has not been limited only to spreading the gospel. The reward for this action is that the Christian reflects the heavenly father’s peacemaking character.
The third category of beatitudes addresses the aspect of persecution. Persecution for the believers is inevitable. Jesus teaches that true believers will always be persecuted. He emphasized this fact in three ways: (a) by stating that persecution is an evidence of citizenship in God’s Kingdom; (b) He spoke of ‘when’ not ‘if’ persecution will happen; (c) He pointed to the fact that the inevitability of persecution is supported by history (v12). It should be noted that the blessing is restricted to those who suffer persecution because of righteousness sake and the reward is the kingdom of heaven. According to Carson, this beatitude stands as a test for all the beatitudes. The beatitudes as a whole present the kind of character Jesus expects of those who belong to his kingdom.
Christian Influence in the World (5:13-16)
Jesus does not expect the believers to live in isolation of the world. Believers should not only measure up to such qualities of character as presented in the beatitudes, but with such character they must exert influence in the world. He used two metaphors to describe the influence of believers in the world – ‘salt’ and ‘light’.
Stephen Dray, in his book, ‘Discovering Matthew’s Gospel’, observed, ‘Jesus therefore teaches here that the unbelieving world, left to itself has the tendency to more and more sin and wickedness. Morally, people can only go from bad to worse unless salt intervenes’. Salt has been said to have a three-fold function: penetration, purification, and preservation. Jesus expects his disciples to influence the world as salt by delaying moral and spiritual decay. At the same time Christ’s disciples are also chosen to be light to lead men to the truth. As D.A. Carson observed, ‘The light is the good deeds performed by Jesus’ followers – performed in such a way that at least some men recognize them as sons of God and come to praise the father whose sons they are (5:16)…’
Christian Conduct (Matt. 5:12)
Jesus revealed at this point in the sermon that his message is related to the law. With respect to the law his purpose is to bring out the underlying principles, which have been pushed aside by the religious leaders. John Murray points out that the contrast instituted in this discourse, and expressed in the repeated formula, ‘ye have heard that it was said…but I say to you’, is not a contrast between the teachings of the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus himself. First, Jesus has just said he has not come to destroy the law; second, the teachings which follow, in direct connection with these contrasts, are teachings that rest upon the validity and sanctity of the Old Testament commandments; third, if Jesus was contrasting his own teaching and the law of the Old Testament then the formula, ‘ye have heard that it was said’ would refer to the Old Testament scripture; fourth, in some of the most significant instances our Lord’s statement as to what was spoken to them of old is not a reproduction of Old Testament scripture, but contains additions which have no counterpart in the Old Testament. Therefore, one must conclude that the antithesis Jesus institutes repeatedly in the discourse is that between his own interpretation and application of the Old Testament law and the externalistic interpretation of the rabbinic tradition.
Jesus was more concerned to set out and illustrate the general principles of God’s will as seen in the law. The law deals in action but Jesus dealt more in character and in the motives that inspires action. This can be seen in his interpretation of specific commandments in the Decalogue and other portions of the law. The law forbade murder and adultery and the Rabbis interpreted these commandments; at least their penal sanction to mean only he who commits the overt act of murder or adultery shall be liable to the judgements. Jesus corrected this interpretation by showing the connection of one’s thoughts and attitude behind these actions. As such he reinterpreted these commandments to include the condemnation of anger and lust as part of the sins they condemn. The principle behind murder is the sanctity of life, whilst adultery the purity of husband and wife’s relationship. Jesus also cited the law with respect to oaths and vows. The teachers of the law interpreted the law to mean only oaths made to the lord cannot be broken. Therefore they use substitute words like ‘heaven’ or ‘earth’ to make their oaths. Jesus says in effect that they are not released in the least degree from the obligations and sanctions of an oath by using substitute words like ‘heaven’ or ‘earth’ because it is the God-ward reference to these words that supplies the force deemed necessary for the oath. D.A. Carson pointed out that these oath-takings are designed to encourage truthfulness, or
to make truthfulness the more solemn and sure. But it has degenerated into terrible rules which let you know when you can get away with lying and deception, and when you can’t. They no longer foster truthfulness but weaken the cause of truth and promote deceit. Jesus relates every oath to God; to swear by anything is to swear by God, for God in some way stands behind everything. Therefore no oath is trivial, or justifiably evasive; all oaths are solemn pledges to speak the truth. Jesus simply abolishes oaths. He is interested in truthfulness, its constancy and absoluteness, which the law points to – let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’.
Also, the Pharisees and teachers of the law have interpreted the law, ‘love you neighbour’, to mean love your fellow Jew and hate your enemy. Carson observed that the Old Testament scripture says, ‘love your neighbour (Lev. 19:18), but nowhere hate your enemy’. But Jesus reinterpreted this command to show that one should love not only his neighbour, who could be anybody in need, but also his enemies, those who may be persecuting you for righteousness sake.
Jesus also points to their attitude behind certain acts such as almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These should be done in order to please God, but since the basic attitude of the Jews was to please men, God does not reward their act of piety. Jesus teaches about the proper attitude towards wealth. He contrasted the worldly treasure to the heavenly, which is permanent possession. Jesus also taught about anxiety that it stems from worldly cares. Freedom from such anxious care comes from trustful assurance that the Father, who cloths the lilies and cares for the birds will provide much more for His children.
The Test of Character
Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount with some stinking tests and drives home the alternatives which men faces (Matt. 7:13-27). But first He warns against three dangers: (i) His disciples are not to be judgemental (Mt 7:5). They must persist in their pursuit of God (7:7-11).
The tests for character were presented as follows: (i) the test for good and evil fruit. Jesus warns against the dangers of false teachers who present themselves as friends of the Truth; (ii) there is the area of profession and practices. Jesus warns against profession without practice (7:21-23). Finally, there is the test of Obedience. Destiny is determined by response to the teaching of Jesus.
The aforementioned discussion has highlighted the contents of the Sermon on the Mount by making the link between belief and practice, confession and deed. In the articles following this one, Jesus’ teaching on morality which forms the basis of his sermon will be pursued further in the Gospels and the Epistles. The church and Christianity stand on a right understanding of Christian morality.