In the so-called “Sermon on the Mount” our Lord was not preaching the gospel, but He was setting forth the principles of His kingdom, which should guide the lives of all who profess to be His disciples. In other words, this is the law of the kingdom; the observance of which must characterize its loyal subjects as they wait for the day when the King Himself shall be revealed. Throughout, it recognizes the existence of definite opposition to His rule, but those who own His authority are called upon to manifest the same meek and lowly spirit that was seen in Him while in the days of His humiliation here on earth. The epistle of James answers very closely to the teaching set forth here. He calls it “the perfect law of liberty,” because it is that which is becoming to the new nature received when one is born of God.
For the natural man this sermon is not the way of life, but rather a source of condemnation; for it sets a standard so high and holy that no unsaved person can by any possibility attain to it. He who attempts it will soon realize his utter helplessness, if he be honest and conscientious. He must look elsewhere in Scripture for the gospel, which is the dynamic of God unto salvation to all who believe (Rom. 1:16). The keenest intellects of earth have recognized in the Sermon on the Mount the highest ethical teaching to men, and have praised its holy precepts even when conscious of their inability to measure up to its standards. So far as the unsaved are concerned, therefore, the teaching given here becomes indeed, as C. I. Scofield has well said, “Law raised to its Nth power.” But for the believer, just as the righteous requirements of the law are “fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4), so the principles laid down in this sermon will find their practical exemplification in the lives of all who seek to walk as Christ walked. It is not for us to relegate all this to the Jewish remnant in the last days or to disciples before the Cross, though fully applicable to both. But we discern here “wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 6:3) that we dare not refuse to obey, lest we be proved to be such as are described in the following verse: “He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings” (1 Tim. 6:4). We need to remember that, though a heavenly people, we have earthly responsibilities, and these are defined for us in this greatest of all sermons having to do with human conduct.
With this in mind, let us look first at the incomparable beatitudes with which it opens:
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: and he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for their’s is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (vv. 1-12)
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” These are the men and women who recognize the fact that they have no spiritual assets. They confess their lost condition and so rely upon divine grace.
“Blessed are they that mourn.” The very sorrows men are called to pass through prove a means of blessing if they know the “God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3), who binds up broken hearts (Ps. 34:18) and makes our griefs to become the means of our growth in grace when we trust His love and rest in the realization that all things work together for the good of His own (Rom. 8:28).
“Blessed are the meek.” The world admires the pushing, self-assertive man. Jesus Christ was meek and lowly in heart. Those who partake of His spirit are the ones who get the most out of life, after all. It is they who “inherit the earth,” for they see in all nature the evidences of a Father’s love and care.
“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Such hunger and thirst—such deep, earnest desire—gives evidence of the new life. These desires are not given to mock us. Satisfaction is the promised portion of all who thus yearn after God, in whom alone righteousness is found.
“Blessed are the merciful.” To those who show mercy, mercy will be extended. This is a law of the kingdom. The hard, implacable man, who deals in stern justice alone, will be dealt with in the same way when failure comes into his own life.
“Blessed are the pure in heart.” Purity is singleness of purpose. The pure in heart are those who put God’s glory above all else. To such He reveals Himself. They see His face when others discern only His providential dealings.
“Blessed are the peacemakers.” Strife and division are works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-20). Sowing discord among brethren is one of the things that the Lord hates (Prov. 6:16-19). We are commanded to follow after the things that make for peace (Rom. 14:19). In doing this, we manifest the divine nature, as children of Him who is the God of peace (Rom. 15:33).
“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” This intimates clearly that the instruction set forth here is intended, not, as many have insisted, for the millennial kingdom of Christ, for then there will be no persecution for the sake of righteousness, but for the disciples of Christ during the time of His rejection, when His followers are exposed to the hatred of a godless world.
“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you … and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” We all shrink from false accusation, but we may find comfort as we remember that our Lord Himself was not exempt from this. There is blessing as we go through these experiences in fellowship with Him, not even attempting to justify ourselves, but leaving it to Him to clear us in His own way and time.
“Rejoice, and be exceeding glad,” instead of giving way to depression of spirit: “for great is your reward in heaven.” God is taking note of all that His people suffer at the hands, or by the lips, of a godless world or false brethren; and He will make up for it all in His own way when we see His face. His prophets in every age have been called upon to endure similar treatment, but He has observed it all and will reward according to the loving-kindness of His heart.
In the next section, verses 13-16, we have Christ’s disciples presented under various figures, all speaking of the importance of faithfulness to the trust He has committed to us.
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
“Ye are the salt of the earth.” Salt preserves from corruption. The disciples of our Lord are left in the world to witness against its iniquity and to set an example of righteousness. Savorless salt, like inconsistent Christians, is good for nothing.
“Ye are the light of the world.” Christ so designated Himself as long as He was in this scene (John 9:5). In His absence His disciples are to witness for Him as lights in this dark world (Phil. 2:15). The light manifests the evils that were hidden in the darkness (Eph. 5:13).
“On a candlestick…it giveth light unto all that are in the house.” One who professes to be a follower of Christ, but who hides his light under a bushel—that is, obscures his testimony by an over-occupation with the affairs of this life— makes no real impression for good upon his community; but one who lives consistently and is out-and-out for Christ shines as a lamp on a stand, enlightening the whole house.
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works.” Mere profession is not enough. The life should speak for God. As we live Christ before men, we let our light shine. Thus they recognize our good works and see in them an evidence of sincerity. So they glorify God by recognizing the reality of His work in the souls of those who are faithful in their witness and behavior. We need to remember that we do not let our light shine by mere profession, but as it was said of our Lord Himself, “the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). So it is a devoted, faithful life that gives light to others.
In verses 17-30 we see how our Lord applied the precepts of the law, neither ignoring them nor in any way belittling them, but showing that there is a deeper meaning in it all than is seen on the surface. It is that which, rightly applied, makes manifest man’s utter helplessness and inability to keep its holy precepts in his natural state. Let us notice with care what Jesus taught as to this:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shall by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you. That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (vv. 17-30)
“I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” This our Lord did in three ways: by His perfect obedience He magnified the law and made it honorable (Isa. 42:21); by His death He met all its claims against the lawbreakers, and so He becomes the end of the law for righteousness to all who believe (Rom. 10:4); by His Spirit He enables believers to fulfill the righteous requirements of the law (Rom. 8:4).
“One jot or one tittle.” The jot is the yodh, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The tittle is a little mark indicating a slight change in the meaning of a letter. Our Lord’s words indicate the perfection of Holy Scripture.
“Whosoever… shall break one of these least commandments.” That is, anyone who ignores the divine authority of God’s revealed will by loosening the moral effect of His commands, so as to make men careless of their obligations to Him, shall be esteemed as of no worth in His kingdom.
“Except your righteousness shall exceed.” The scribes and Pharisees were extreme legalists and trusted in their own righteousness but had not submitted to the righteousness of God (Rom. 10:3). The righteousness God accepts is of a higher character. This higher righteousness is suggested in the verses that follow. The law forbade murder. Jesus shows that unreasonable anger is, in itself, a violation of the spirit of the commandment. “Thou shalt not kill.” It is as a result of such a condition of mind that murder is committed. To use vile invectives against another is the manifestation of the hatred that causes men to kill, and therefore places one in danger even of hell-fire.
To profess to be a worshiper of God while willfully wronging another or cherishing malice in the heart is obnoxious to God. Let him who comes to His altar with a gift first seek out the brother he has wronged and then draw near to sacrifice.
Nor should one permit a spirit of antagonism toward another to continue if it is within his power to come to agreement; for sin never dies of old age, but becomes worse as time goes on. Many a one has suffered severely because of what might easily have been cleared up if he had given heed to these words.
In verse 28 Jesus shows us that an unchaste look, a leering, concentrated lascivious gaze upon a woman is actually, in God’s eyes, a violation of the seventh commandment. With such a standard, who can plead “Not guilty”? How important then the admonition to put to death any offending member lest one be betrayed into greater sin, which, if unrepented of, brings eternal judgment in hell itself.
Surely every right-thinking person must admit that the righteousness inculcated by our Lord in this matchless discourse (which has won the admiration of intelligent people everywhere) is a standard far beyond that to which the natural man can attain. It is only when one has been born again that he can live on this high plane. When men talk of the Sermon on the Mount being religion enough for them, they only show how little they have entered into the meaning of our Master’s words. He portrays a supernatural life which can be lived only by supernatural power—that power which the Holy Spirit gives to him who believes the gospel.
We have next an absolutely authoritative declaration concerning the marriage relationship. Of old God permitted certain things because of the hardness of men’s hearts, which are forbidden to the disciples of Jesus. He says: “It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: but I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery” (vv. 31-32). By comparing these verses with a later declaration found in 19:9 of this same gospel, we may see that marriage, which is in God’s intention for life, is dissolved by the grave sin of fornication on the part of either husband or wife. This leaves the innocent party free to marry again but, as 1 Corinthians 7 intimates, “only in the Lord.” It is absurd to say, as some have done, that fornication here refers only to immoral behavior before marriage and discovered only afterward (as in Deut. 24:1), but has no reference to the same sin committed after marriage. This would be to make violation of the marriage vows a lesser offence than sexual sin indulged in while single. The clear sense of the passage is evident. The adulterous husband or wife breaks the tie. A divorce in the courts legalizes the separation, and the innocent one is as free before God as though never married at all.
Our Lord continues to magnify the law by stressing its fullest content. He speaks of oaths in verses 34-37:
But I say unto you. Swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne: nor by the earth; for it is His footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
Judged by this high standard, how much of our conversation is unworthy of those who profess to be subject to the Lord? What careless speech and foolish bywords professed Christians indulge in, just as though Jesus had never spoken regarding this matter.
The rest of the chapter may be considered as one whole section, setting forth as it does the manifestation of grace in the lives of the disciples of Christ:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect, (vv. 38-48)
“An eye for an eye.” This is pure law—absolute righteousness (Exod. 21:24). Judged by that standard, every man’s case is hopeless.
“Resist not evil.” God has dealt with His children in grace. Therefore He expects them to manifest the same grace toward others.
“Let him have thy cloke also.” This was far above what the law demanded. When the grace of Christ controls the heart, one can suffer the loss of all things without resentment.
“Go with him twain.” Ordinary etiquette in those days demanded that one go a mile to direct or guide a bewildered or belated traveler. Grace goes the second mile.
“Turn not thou away.” The disciple of Christ is to be like his Master—willing to communicate. He may not be in a position to give all that is asked of him, or to lend all that one might want, but he is to be ready to comply, so far as possible, with requests for aid and assistance.
“It hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy.” The Scripture passages of the Old Testament plainly commanded the former, but it was rabbinical tradition that added the latter of these sayings, possibly basing it on such passages as Deuteronomy 23:6 and some of the imprecatory psalms (Ps. 137:9).
“But I say unto you.” Speaking as the Sent One of the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ corrected the faulty position of the rabbis and set forth His perfect law of love, even for one’s enemies. By doing them good and praying for them, we overcome the evil in a Christlike way. No matter how badly others treat us, we are to seek to help them. We are to bless them that curse us, to be kind even though they manifest hatred, to pray for them even when they persecute and seek to injure us. This is the grace of God in action, as seen in the lives of surrendered believers who are dominated by the Spirit of Christ. Does this seem too high a standard for sinful man to attain? It is! But a regenerated man can do what is impossible for the natural man.
“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” That is, as we obey our Lord’s commands given here, we manifest the fact that we are children of the heavenly Father, who showers His mercies upon just and unjust alike and would have us imitate Him. It is the divine nature, of which each believer is a partaker (2 Peter 1:4), which enables him to approximate the character portrayed in this searching discourse.
“If ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?” Even the most blatant worldling loves his own and can appreciate those who show appreciation of him. But those who follow the Lord are to love all men, even those who by bitter opposition would make life miserable if they could.
“If ye salute your brethren only … do not even the publicans so?” It is a small thing if Christ’s disciples show only the same interest in others that men evidence who are engaged in the most despicable callings. Publicans were detested by the Jews. They were taxgatherers in Israel who bought their offices from the Roman government and “farmed the taxes,” extorting everything possible from their own countrymen, and fattening upon the proceeds after turning over only what was obligatory to the assessor appointed by the State. Yet these gave recognition to their own brethren.
“Perfect, even as your Father… is perfect.” This is perfection in the sense of the complete absence of partiality, thus imitating Him who is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), but who lavishes His favors upon just and unjust alike.
God’s choicest blessings are for those who manifest the same spirit of reverence for Him, and meekness and compassion for others, which were seen in all their fullness in our blessed Lord, as He walked this earth in the days of His flesh (Heb. 5:7). Thus, and thus only, that which is beyond the reach of the natural man is fulfilled in those who have received a new life and nature through trusting in Christ as their Savior. No adverse circumstances can disturb the serenity of those who know the Lord and who acknowledge His authority over their lives.