The following is from a presentation given at this week's New Covenant Theology think tank in Angola, New York at New Covenant Baptist Fellowship.
I am convinced more than ever that a proper understanding of the Sermon on the Mount is fundamental to New Covenant Theology. This study has been a blast. There are things here in this text in Matthew that I've seen for the first time. And I've become convinced that much of the error surrounding this passage occurs simply because people don't allow the text to speak for itself.
The Sermon on the Mount's Old Testament backdrop is as controversial as it is colorful. If the Sermon is the most argued about passage in the scriptures, one fundamental reason is the wide diversity of opinion regarding it's place in redemptive history. How one understands this Sermon's relationship to the Old Testament has a fundamental impact on just about every facet of the Christian experience, from one's understanding of redemptive history to how one worships on Sunday to how one relates to God, brothers and sisters in Christ, the unbelieving neighbor, and the world at large. Simply put: a Christian's view of the Sermon's relationship to the Old Testament is bound up with his or her self-identity and worldview.
That the Old Testament and the Old Covenant have an interest in the Sermon on the Mount we will treat as a given here. One need look no further than those statements found in chapter 5 which theologians have labeled "the antitheses". All six of the antitheses are predicated in Old Testament law. Each of the "you have heard it said" statements employs an Old Testament quote before moving on to the "but I say to you" addendum, the interpretation of which has enflamed so much controversy. There are other quotes and allusions to the OT in the Sermon, but the so-called antitheses are certainly the most notable.
More important is Christ's statement in Matthew 5:17, where Christ says "do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." Here Christ brings the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament to bear on the entire Sermon. And it is this statement, I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, that gives rise to the antitheses in the verses following, which themselves arise from the Law of the Old Testament. So the Old Testament not only provides context for the Sermon on the Mount, it's actually being quoted in the Sermon on the Mount.
The question then becomes, how does Christ understand his own Sermon in the context of the Old Testament? And the second, closely related, is how does Matthew understand Christ and His sermon in the context of the Old Testament? Before those questions can be answered, the structure, context, and purpose must be considered.
The Structure of the Sermon
While proposals for the Sermon's structure are as diverse as the interpretations of it, I'm of the opinion that its structure can be fairly easy to ascertain, while at the same time, making sense of the structure is a little more difficult.
Salt and Light: 5:11-16
I have come to fulfill: 5:17-20
Father who sees in secret (Lord's Prayer): 6:1-18
Laying up Treasures: 6:19-24
7 imperatives: 6:25-7:23
Those who hear these words of mine: 7:24-27
I am not convinced that the Sermon can be easily sectioned into 5 books of Moses, as some commentators have proposed, much like some have proposed that the book of Matthew is also divided into 5 books (although there seems to be a "panel" structure to Matthew following along the series of "when he had finished" statements… 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1). Nor am I completely convinced that a chiasm is present here in the Sermon on the Mount, although there are tell-tale signs of one. Both the introduction and conclusion have parallelisms, as do the Beatitudes and the wise man/foolish man parable. There is also parallelism with the "Law or Prophets" of 5:17 with "Law and Prophets" of 7:12. At the very least, the introduction and conclusion make the Sermon very easy to section off from the rest of the book of Matthew, especially when the conclusion includes the first of the "when he had finished" statements.
If this is a chiasm, then the midpoint of this sermon, its "climax", is 5:48 (unlike many chiastic proponents who see the Lord's Prayer as the point of the climax). And there are a couple of reasons why this makes sense: it is reflective of not only a recurrent theme in the Sermon (5:6, 5:20, 6:33, 7:23 - in reverse), but also the main theme of the Sermon (5:20). 5:48 is the imperative form of the main theme found in 5:20… the necessity of having a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
Thus the righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees, the righteousness the blessed man hungers and thirsts after, the righteousness we are to pursue, the righteousness that sets itself over against all lawlessness, is to *be* perfect, even as the Father in heaven is perfect. Like much of the Sermon that reveals an indicative-imperative rhythm, 5:48 is the imperative form of what is stated in the indicative form in 5:20.
Structure of Matthew: Perfectly finished
Not only does 5:48 sit at the center of the Sermon's thrust, it is unpacked throughout the rest of the book. The greek word for "perfect" is the same word used in the literary markers that set off the 6 panels in Matthew: "finished".
Let's look at those statements:
7:28-8:1: "And when Jesus finished (perfected) these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching,… when he came down..."
11:1: "When Jesus had finished (perfected) instructing his twelve disciples, he went from there to teach and preach in their cities."
13:53-54: "And when Jesus had finished (perfected) these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogues, so that they were astonished."
19:1: "Now when Jesus had finished (perfected) these sayings, he went away from Galilee…and large crowds followed him, and he healed them there."
26:1: "When Jesus had finished (perfected) all these sayings, he said to his disciples…" Don't miss the word "all" here… there is an intention of Matthew to show that the finality of Christ's perfection of his work and teaching is coming.
Most of the main elements of 4:23 and 7:28 are present in the rest of these literary markers (the words or thoughts of "finished", "he went", and "teaching/preaching", "healing"). Listen to 4:23: "(Jesus) went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease… great crowds followed him". 7:28: "the crowds were astonished at his teaching", 11:1, Jesus "instructed" and "went to teach and preach", 13:53-54, Jesus "taught them in their synagogues" and "they were astonished", 19:1, "large crowds followed (Jesus) and he healed them…".
The first thing we can say is that these markers are completing what was begun in 4:23. Understood in light of the fulfillment talked about in Matthew 5:17, these literary markers point to an ongoing progressive fulfillment in the ministry and teaching of Jesus Christ.
What was started in 4:23 is continued and "perfected" through the rest of the book… this "perfecting" of what was started in 4:23 has everything to do with "being perfect, as *His* heavenly Father is perfect, with a "righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees". What was started in 4:23, and is being perfect throughout the rest of the book has everything to do with perfecting the righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees, a righteousness after which we hunger and thirst. This perfecting throughout the book of Matthew has everything to do with providing kingdom citizens with the satisfaction of our deepest longings, cravings, and appetites (Charles Dennison).
Thus, the theme of Christ's righteousness is tied to the unfolding of the events of the book of Matthew, especially in regards to those literary markers, the teaching of Christ. 5:48 helps provide interpretive context for the series of "finished" statements.
One final note about 5:48. It too has an Old Testament backdrop. We will say more about this later. But not enough attention has been given to Christ's use of Leviticus 11:45 in the Sermon, especially with 5:48 sitting at the point of the chiasm like it is.
The Context of the Sermon
The immediate context of the Sermon is found in Matthew 4 verses 23ff. In fact, there is such fluidity between these 3 verses and the Sermon, one would not be mistaken to think that the entire Sermon canopy begins in 4:23.
Matthew 4:23ff… this is what Jesus Christ proclaims to his people through His Word:
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to 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 those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. "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 4:23-5:20
In the development of the Sermon on the Mount as an important passage for understanding the New Covenant, little attention is given by commentators, pastors, and theologians to the passage immediately preceding the Sermon. And this is unfortunate, for it is there that we find the historical and theological context for the Sermon, as well as allusion to its Old Testament underpinnings.
The first thing we can say about this immediate context is that Christ has the ear of the whole Jewish world. The whole world is his stage, even if it is Israel who is the intended audience. Note the parallels: "he went throughout all Galilee" and "his fame spread throughout all Syria". These two are simultaneous events. As Christ does one, the other is being accomplished. And note the language as to *who* takes note of Christ "going" all over Galilee and his fame being spread through all of Syria: "great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan". North, East, West, and South… this is a description of what had been the land of the twelve tribes of Israel. Even as Christ's fame has spread beyond the borders of old Israel, Israel itself has taken notice of this one named Jesus.
The second thing we must note is Christ's activity… and this becomes important as we consider the Sermon and its relationship to the OT. Verse 23: And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people." This activity that has Israel's ear, is threefold: teaching, proclaiming, and healing. Much, much more could be said about how this threefold activity of Christ unfolds throughout the rest of the book of Matthew. And there will be more to say about how this activity drips with Old Testament significance and fulfillment. But, what we need to see at this point of our discussion, is that it is this activity that leads into Christ's ascent of the mountain to deliver his Sermon. Christ ascends the mount to teach. What he delivers is the gospel of the kingdom, and in bringing the gospel of the kingdom to his people, brings healing to those who have ears to hear. And he does it in didactic, unilateral or unidirectional, and incarnational form. Christ teaches the gospel of the kingdom in dialogue. Christ preaches the gospel of the kingdom in unidirectional monologue. And Christ incarnates the gospel of the kingdom in healing the sick. That threefold activity consumes Christ throughout the course of his life on earth.
The third thing of note here are the "crowds". Not only do the crowds provide a linchpin between this last part of chapter 4 and the Sermon on the Mount, but the crowds also provide a bookend to the end of the Sermon. Notice the language: "great crowds followed him…" and "seeing the crowds"…. And chapter 8 verse 1: "great crowds followed him…" What we have leading into the Sermon in the immediate context is a total engagement of Israel with this phenomenon named Jesus. What occurs here and throughout the rest of the book of Matthew hasn't been confined to one subgroup of Israel. It hasn't been relegated to a select few. This Person from Galilee has gathered and united Israel with his proclamation of the kingdom.
And the last thing to note is the content of that proclamation: the gospel of the kingdom. More on that in just a moment.
The Purpose of the Sermon
We've only begun to note the context of the Sermon in Matthew, and it's probably a little early in the discussion to posit the purpose of the Sermon, at least in the fullest sense of purpose. To flesh out all of the questions regarding the Matthean use of the Sermon and why it occurs where it does in Matthew is beyond the scope of this presentation. In order to get at its purpose, we must ask questions such as 1. How does the Sermon serve the larger purpose of the book of Matthew? 2. What is the purpose of the book of Matthew? 3. Why does it occur earlier rather than later in the book? 4. What is the relationship between the Sermon and chapters 4 and 8 of Matthew, those chapters and events that immediately precede and follow the Sermon? And there are other contextual questions we could ask that would help us understand the purposes of the Sermon on the Mount.
The question we will attempt to contain ourselves to in this presentation is this: 5. How does the use of the Old Testament (by both Matthew and Christ) help us understand the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount? In order to get at "purpose", though, we must begin with the Sermon and its immediate context itself. The structure of the Sermon should serve up for us, a cursory stab at the goals and intent of Matthew and Jesus in the Sermon.
There are four items of note in regard to structure and immediate context:
The good news of the kingdom
Chapter 4, verse 23: And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.
The first thing that we want to see is that the Sermon on the Mount is the good news of the kingdom. It contains the gospel. The Sermon unfolds for us just what it is that Jesus is teaching and proclaiming. Look at verse 2: And he opened his mouth and taught them. At the very least, Matthew is linking the sermon to Christ's activity of "teaching" in 4:23. But he also goes to the pain of describing Christ as "opening his mouth", a description that over the course of the scriptures portrays proclamation. So this Sermon is an unpacking of the content of Christ's teaching and preaching (4:17 as well) the gospel of the kingdom.
And this isn't simply the "gospel". This is the "gospel of the kingdom". The Sermon has everything to do with the ushering in of a new world order, a new era. This message was on John's lips in Matthew 3:2, "repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." And Jesus picks up John's message and carries it himself, in Matthew 4:17, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." This Sermon on the Mount is the message of the in-breaking of a kingdom that is not of this world.
As one who had authority
Just as the beginning of the Sermon helps us see purpose, so too does the end. Verse 28: And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority and not as their scribes. When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. Much has been written about what this is telling us about Jesus and the Sermon, and we won't unpack that here; but this very last phrase, "great crowds followed him" is identical to chapter 4:25 and the lead-in into the Sermon. Matthew here, among other things, is providing a bookend to the proclamation and teaching of the gospel of the kingdom.
Some commentators would prefer to say that the Sermon constitutes a collection of Christ's sayings throughout the course of Christ's ministry, collated by Matthew to serve Matthew's theology, ecclesiology, and history. But the bookend won't let us go there. "When Jesus finished these sayings" implies the end of an event. It is most likely that what we find in the Sermon does reveal the content of Christ's teaching and preaching over the course of his ministry, especially if one is inclined to believe the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17ff) is not one and the same with the Sermon on the Mount. Even if it is true that this Sermon summarizes Christ's teaching, this Sermon is a singular unit. The bookend, among other things, forces us to conclude that this Sermon is an event. At an early stage of Christ's ministry, Christ delivers this Sermon to a people, Israel, in a singular and very significant *event*. This *event* is important to the life of Israel and to the church in redemptive history.
Thus, the structure not only helps us see the content of the proclamation and teaching of the gospel of the kingdom, but also helps us see the proclamation and teaching of the gospel of the kingdom as a significant event in redemptive history.
An exceeding righteousness
I've already alluded to a series of statements that occur within the Sermon itself that serve up for us the trajectory where Christ is taking both his immediate and extended audiences. These also help form the substructure to the sermon: 5:6, 5:20, 5:48, 6:33, and 7:23.
Let's look at those verses… these statements are all interconnected, helping unfold and unpack the Sermon:
5:6: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. This, not coincidentally, is the center point around which the rest of the Beatitudes revolve. The thrust of the Beatitudes, as blessing upon the kingdom citizen from the mouth of the King, is found in this: the satisfaction for those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, a righteousness, the later statements tell us is outside of the crowd's grasp, a righteousness that is not theirs.
5:20: "…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven". I preached an entire sermon on this a few weeks back, so I would refer you to it on my blog. If there is a thesis statement to be found in the Sermon on the Mount, it is found in 5:17-20. The entire Sermon swings on this question about the kind of righteousness characteristic of the kingdom citizen. This righteousness is beyond the grasp of the kingdom citizen. It is not self-generated. Jesus comes proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, a kingdom that is not of this world, a kingdom marked by a righteousness that can only come from above. The crowds, who have come from North, South, East, and West in the land of old Israel, lack righteousness. And this Jesus who sits on the mount tells his people that unless their righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees, the kingdom is not for them (chapter 5 verse 20).
5:48: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Not only is this a righteousness outside of their grasp, the demands of the law have not changed. The law demanded complete obedience. 5:48 occurs here as the imperative form of the indicative in 5:20. Those who gain entrance into heaven, must have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. In order to have that righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."
6:33: "…seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." Just as 5:48 functions as an imperative form of 5:20, so too 6:33 functions as an imperative form for the indicative found in 5:6. The thrust of this verse is "hunger and thirst" after the kingdom of God and his righteousness. And it is here that we find the solution/resolution to the dilemma of 5:20 and 5:48. The righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees, the perfect righteousness demanded by God can only be found in God alone, or, more importantly, the One sitting before you on the Mount.
7:23: "…depart from me, you workers of lawlessness" (or anti-righteousness or unrighteousness). Here, "workers of lawlessness" function as the antithesis for those who are "blessed", hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Again, more on this in a moment.
So… along with the parallelisms noted earlier that help us see some semblance of a chiastic structure, this series of statements within the Sermon itself function like glue holding the structure of the Sermon together. Further, the repetition of the common theme here points us in the direction of Christ's intended purpose of the Sermon and connect the Sermon to the rest of the book of Matthew.
One of the upshots of this discussion to this point, is this: as much as we want to talk about ethic and the commentators want to posit the Sermon as "ethic" (and for good reason), don't miss the righteousness, the larger purpose the ethic is serving. We would be hard pressed to deny that an "ethic" is being delivered by Christ on the Mount. Some might want to go there. I don't think we can dismiss that thought. But even once we've agreed that there is ethic here, the question becomes (amid all sorts of controversy) is "what kind of ethic?" Regardless, while there is ethic, the structure of this Sermon points us away from coming to the conclusion that *ethic* drives the motivations of Christ (and Matthew) in the delivery of this Sermon and its incorporation into the text of Scripture.
The thought that runs to the heart of intent isn't "ethic" (contra the utilitarian or moralist worldviews that dominate a lot of the commentaries), but "righteousness". In this Sermon, "ethic" serves the purposes of "righteousness". "Ethic" flows out of "righteousness." Some who have understood this have charged Matthew (and Christ)himself with being "unfair" and even "unethical". Understood as subservient to the righteousness that God requires, this "ethic" becomes most severe, and indeed it is, outside of the One sitting at the top of the mount. But the "ethic" unpacked in the Sermon on the Mount *is* the answer as to what kind of righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees. It begins to form the "content" of that righteousness which exceeds the Pharisees. It's a vicious cycle… in order to have this kind of righteousness, one must live out the ethic. But the only way to live out the ethic, is to have the righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. This "righteousness" dominates the landscape, and even the "ethic" delivered on the Mount serves its purposes.
"Blessed is the man"/"depart from me"
And the last bit of structure to briefly mention is one that occurs in the parallelism already mentioned. I briefly mention it here because I think we must keep this idea in front of us. Without going into all of the elements that make up a biblical covenant, other than the identification of the parties and the promises involved, the most notable elements of a covenant are the blessing and cursing elements. Blessing is promised upon the recipient based on certain conditions, and cursing is threatened upon the recipient based on certain violations of the agreement.
The following is from a presentation given at this week's New Covenant Theology think tank in Angola, New York at New Covenant Baptist Fellowship.