In last week’s reflection, we looked at how Matthew was making a pretty radical point – especially to his largely Jewish audience – about Jesus. He took the three largest, most revered figures of their history – Abraham, David, and Moses – and essentially said: “Jesus is bigger and better than all of them!” And just in case you weren’t clear on that, this next section drives home the point. Because the “greater-than” comparisons run through this whole passage.
Like we discussed last week: Just like Moses, Jesus came out of Egypt. Just like Moses, Jesus came through the waters. Just like Moses, Jesus had a wilderness experience. And now, just like Moses, Jesus goes up onto a mountain to give a new Law. But this Law was bigger and better than anything the people had understood it to be before.
“The Law”. This was the term that was most often used by Israel to refer to “The Torah” (i.e. the first five books of the Bible, Genesis to Deuteronomy). This was the foundation of faith for the people of God. It’s what gave them an understanding of who they were, what God had done for them, and how they had been saved to be God’s special people and to bring God’s blessing into the world.
And now, Jesus begins to speak about the Law – but in ways that would have caused some real commotion back then. And even now, any honest reading of this “Sermon on the Mount” can’t help but rustle our feathers. Because Jesus isn’t just giving a new set of rules to follow. He’s pointing to our need for a transformed heart.
In this sermon, Jesus takes some well worn norms – both in that culture and in ours – and completely flips them on their heads. He begins with The Beatitudes, which might sound like a beautifully written, philosophical poem on first reading. But let’s get real! Do you feel “happy” (i.e. blessed) if you know you’re poor? Do you feel fortunate when you’re in mourning? Jesus was describing the situation that the people of Israel were living in – and hated. They were living under Rome’s oppressive regime. They were being taxed into poverty. Rome was taking everything from them to resource its own aggressive military campaigns. God’s people were being forced into meek submission. And though they longed for justice to be delivered to Rome and for God’s righteous and merciful ways to be restored to Israel, this wasn’t what they were experiencing. How could anything in their current experience be described as “blessed”? But Jesus was calling them to see that their blessing was not defined by their external circumstances, but by the fact that God’s presence was among them – the Kingdom of God was given to them – in the midst of their circumstances. Jesus was saying, “Don’t you see?? Even though you’re surrounded by Rome – evil, violence, oppression, injustice – none of that can get in the way of God’s purposes for you. None of that can stop Him from accomplishing His purposes through you. That’s what makes you blessed – you live under the King whose mercy is unstoppable, even by the greatest worldly forces!
He had more upside-down things to say. Love your enemies, and don’t seek revenge. Subvert oppression by radical, sacrificial love. Give mercy even when justice is deserved. Recognize your own sin before you condemn someone else for theirs. This new Law that Jesus was speaking about didn’t just go against social norms (of both his day and ours), it rubs up against human nature. Living by this kind of Law is radical. It requires a whole new way of thinking and feeling. A whole new set of values.
And that’s kind of the point.
Jesus was cutting to the heart. The Law of God’s Kingdom isn’t a matter of external legislation. It’s about a transformed heart. Because how you live outwardly is a direct expression of what’s inside the heart. What comes out of us is a reflection of what’s in us. So Jesus applies this in all sorts of ways: murder, adultery, honesty, religious piety. If darkness is in us, it’s going to come out of us in one way or another – whether through outright evil or cloaked in religion.
And in this, Jesus is giving an ethic – a way of living for those in His Kingdom – that is so high, so beautiful, so divine – that it requires nothing short of heart transformation to actually live it out.
This was a hard teaching. Like I said, it rustles our feathers. Maybe more than that. But as people heard Jesus speak, there was something so undeniably true and good about his teaching that they couldn’t help but be drawn to it. It cut through their tendencies toward both legalism and licentiousness, both religiosity and rebellion. It pointed to the heart of God, who is Good from the inside out, and who has a plan to transform us from the inside out as well – because He loves us like a Father. Jesus’ words were self-authenticating. They had an authority that was unlike any of their other “authority figures”, and somehow all of God’s Law came into a whole new kind of clarity when it came from Jesus.
Because the Laws of God’s Kingdom aren’t just meant to be a set of rules and rituals to follow. The Laws of this Kingdom are meant to show us the goodness of the King. The greatness of the King. And as we learn to see Him, and trust Him, and follow Him, He does the good and great work of transforming our hearts to become like His.
Day 1: Matthew 5:1-16
Day 2: Matthew 5:17-48
Day 3: Matthew 6:1-18
Day 4: Matthew 6:19-7:12
Day 5: Matthew 7:13-29
As you read through the daily readings for this week, reflect on the questions below. All the questions could apply in one way or another to each day’s reading, and you may find that they help you see a different side of Jesus’ identity and purpose – and yours! – when you ask them each day... ·
Where do you see Jesus turning a common social norm upside-down? ·
Where do you see Jesus moving past external behaviours and cutting to matters of the heart? ·
Where do you see Jesus showing his authority? ·
Where do Jesus’ words cut most deeply to your own heart?
Pray about this. Ask Jesus to show you where your heart needs healing and transforming.
Ask Him to lead you into a whole new way of thinking and feeling about this, so that your outward living might change as a result.