After creating quite the ruckus in Jerusalem and sparking murderous hate in the hearts of many Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus leads His scruffy band of followers back up north to their home region of Galilee. Once there, He eagerly looks for an opportunity to stir up more Sabbath Day trouble. Let’s see…what should He do? Well, His disciples have to eat. Why not use lunch to start a fight? That sounds good.
Now back in Lesson 45 we learned about winnowing and threshing. These are two processes that were used to separate wheat kernels from their papery shells so that you could make food out of them. The usual thing to do was to grind the kernels into flour, but you could also just pop them into your mouth and start munching. But of course the laborious task of processing wheat was clearly work, and according to Yahweh’s Law, there was no working allowed on the Sabbath. Well, just how far should we take this wheat processing business? If a man just rubs a few kernels between his hands for a quick mouthful, that’s hardly “working”…or is it? The legalistic Pharisees say it is. Jesus knows that this is what the Pharisees say, which is why He leads His hungry disciples into a grain field and urges them to start doing some hand winnowing. And of course He makes sure His boys are doing it right in front of some nosy Pharisees.
His disciples were hungry, so they began breaking off some heads of grain and eating them. But some Pharisees saw them do it and protested, “Look, Your disciples are breaking the Law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath.” (Mt. 12:1-2)
The Pharisees are agitated. Good. That’s how Jesus wants them to be.
Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the House of Yahweh, and he and his companions broke the Law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. And haven’t you read in the Law of Moses that the priests on duty in the Temple may work on the Sabbath? I tell you, there is One here who is even greater than the Temple! But you would not have condemned My innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” (Matt. 12:3-8)
Jesus immediately fires off a lengthy comeback which is once again filled with references to Scriptures—the same Scriptures that the Pharisees claim to be experts on. What’s interesting is that He starts off by citing a time that David broke Yahweh’s Law by eating the Bread of Presence—a bread that was kept in the Holy Place specifically for Yahweh. It was a sin for David and his scruffy band of men to go munching on Yahweh’s sacred stuff. But David was in a jam, his men were hungry and without food, so a priest decided to make an exception. Interesting. Jesus is essentially saying, “It’s okay for Me and My guys to sin because David committed a similar sin in the Bible.” How do two wrongs make a right? Yahweh was extremely touchy about His sacred stuff. David’s actions were very wrong. Yet like us today, the ancient Jews had a way of treating sins in the Bible as not so bad simply because they were done by famous icons of the faith. But violating Yahweh’s sacred stuff doesn’t suddenly become okay just because you’re David. This first argument sounds pretty weak.
Jesus now goes on to point out that even though the Sabbath was to be a day of rest, Yahweh allowed the priests working in His Temple to continue doing their daily priestly duties on the Sabbath. The point here is that even Yahweh makes exceptions on the Sabbath. Well, okay, but the priests were doing acts of worship—Jesus’ disciples are feeding their faces. We can hardly put these two things in the same camp.
Jesus’ third defense is that He is greater than the Temple. This just sounds like obnoxious ego in the ears of the Pharisees. Jesus then throws Hosea 6:6 in their faces again—Yahweh saying “I desire mercy, not sacrifices.” Jesus loves to throw this verse at the Pharisees because it is a verse that condemns the very legalism they are so steeped in. Yes, Yahweh wants us to keep His Laws—but not to the point that we become merciless, judgmental snobs. There are supposed to be obvious exceptions. If a starving man comes to your door on the Sabbath, you should give him something to eat, not slam the door in his face saying, “Die! I have to honor God!” This is why Jesus brings up the example of David—the priest who passed out Yahweh’s sacred bread to a group of famished men was putting compassion above the letter of the Law. This was pleasing to God because the priest’s heart attitude was right. But here we have to be careful, for it’s too easy for us to start using compassion as an excuse to dishonor God. When the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah tried to talk Yahweh into withholding discipline from a people who despised Him, Yahweh was not at all pleased. When God feels we’re acting like the needs of others are more important than honoring Him and respecting His feelings, then He is not going to smile on us for bending the rules. So there is no blanket rule we can lay down for when it’s okay to blow off God’s moral codes. Each individual needs to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit in their particular situations. Sometimes God will want us to be merciful. Other times, He’ll say that obeying His commands to the letter is priority one.
While Jesus enjoys throwing Scripture at the Pharisees, His real bottom line here is that He’s God, therefore He gets to live above His own Laws. He claims to be Lord of the Sabbath, and that means He’ll rub as many grain kernels as He wants to and the Pharisees can just deal with it. Now how well do you react to someone who declares they are excused from following the rules—especially God’s rules? We tend to dislike such people. We label them as being arrogant rebels. Yet Jesus is not a rebel, He’s God, and as God, He answers to no one. But of course all the Pharisees see when they look at Jesus is a human being. They don’t see God. They see a blaspheming Troublemaker who is teaching His disciples to follow in His corrupt ways. Yahweh is the Lord of the Sabbath, not this Son of a carpenter. The Pharisees are livid about Jesus daring to suggest He is equal with God.
HEALING A WITHERED HAND
Jesus really enjoys provoking the Pharisees on the Sabbath. After this argument in a field, He heads right on over to the local synagogue so He can make another scene. In that synagogue is a man with a withered hand. As soon as Jesus comes into the room, the scribes and Pharisees assume He won’t be able to resist healing the man and they’re all ready to accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath.
The Pharisees asked Jesus, “Does the law permit a person to work by healing on the Sabbath?” (They were hoping He would say yes, so they could bring charges against Him.)
And He answered, “If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you work to pull it out? Of course you would. And how much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Yes, the Law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath.”
Then Jesus said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored, just like the other one! Then the Pharisees called a meeting to plot how to kill Jesus. (Mt. 12:10-14)
Now if you believe the power to heal comes from Yahweh, and you see Yahweh exercising that power on a Sabbath Day, then clearly Yahweh is alright with healing on the Sabbath. So the Pharisees really are being fools to fixate only on what Jesus is doing instead of on how He is doing it. Since they’re so sure He can’t be God, how is He healing people? These miraculous works were intended to stir up some useful theological questions in people’s minds, but instead all the Pharisees want to do is nitpick about the Sabbath.
Notice how here in Galilee, the leaders are starting to talk about murdering Jesus. This is the same sentiment we found down in Jerusalem at the end of our last lesson. Jesus is making a whole lot of enemies.
APPOINTING OF THE TWELVE
After putting some space between Himself and this new crop of bloodthirsty Pharisees, Jesus does an extensive tour of preaching. Then one night He goes off by Himself on a mountain near the Sea of Galilee to commune with Yahweh and the Holy Spirit. The next morning, He chooses twelve men out of His group of regular followers and takes them up the mountain for a private meeting. There He officially appoints these men as His twelve disciples. It’s Peter & Andrew, James & John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, another James, Thaddaeus, Simon and Judas. Some of these men we never hear about, like Thaddaeus. Others are infamous, like Judas. Don’t read too much into the silence. It was a high compliment to be chosen by Jesus, and let’s remember that He could see into these men’s hearts. Just because no one felt like writing reams about Thaddaeus (aka Judas the brother of James) and Bartholomew doesn’t mean these men weren’t pleasing to God. What we do know is that all of these men are going to stick with Jesus to the bitter end—that tells us quite a bit about the seriousness of their devotion to Him.
THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
As Jesus returns from the mountain with His special twelve, He finds a great multitude of people waiting for Him. Luke tells us that they’ve come from as far south as Judea and from as far north as Tyre and Sidon.
This demonstrates how rapidly Jesus’ reputation is growing, and why not? He’s purposely caused this to happen by traveling north and south performing fantastic miracles of healing. Now everyone wants some of that action.
A detail we often blow past in the Gospels is the sheer volume of individuals who are demon possessed. Over and over again, we find descriptions of Jesus driving demons out of people. There is a whole lot of demonic activity happening in this region, and a whole lot of possession. The same is true today. We often carry around a stereotype in our mind that if someone was demon possessed, they’d be acting in bizarre ways that would make us immediately suspicious of their problem. But this isn’t true. Demons know how to make their host humans behave quite normally and naturally. Sometimes they even send them to church and have them blend right in with Christians. So just because someone seems calm and collected on the outside doesn’t mean that all is well with them spiritually. Demonic possession is a far greater problem than we realize. The modern world is filled with people who are putting a lot of time and energy into making contact with supernatural beings other than God. It was the same in Bible times—people were seeking out and making connections with powerful spirits only to then find themselves in a terrible crisis. That’s when they ran to Jesus for help. But simply having their demon driven out was not a long-term cure—these people needed to submit to God in their hearts to stay in a positive spiritual place. Most did not. Most were just interested in the quick fix to the current crisis, then they would go on with business as usual.
Now as soon as Jesus comes into view, the mob does their usual pressing in on Him. Everyone’s pushing and grabbing at Him, convinced that if they can just touch Him, they’ll get their miracle. What a disturbing scene. It’s hardly honoring to God when we just claw at Him for some free goodies. God wants us to cherish Him for who He is, not just for what He can do for us. Do you want to be married to a man who only values you for sex? Do you want to be married to a woman who only cares about the paycheck you bring home? Jesus knows these people are only interested in grabbing the goodies, and He isn’t thrilled. How He manages to detach Himself from them is a mystery, but after healing some, He moves a little ways up the mountainside in order to gain some elevation over them, sits down, and starts to teach. His disciples gather around Him, so He starts His sermon speaking specifically to them. This is very important to note, for to properly interpret what Jesus is saying, we must first identify who He is talking to. Is He talking to sincere followers of God or spiritual rebels? Is He talking to Jews or non-Jews? Is He talking to commoners or preachers and teachers?
Now once we realize Jesus is talking to people who consider themselves to be sincerely interested in following Him (at least for now), we can understand why He launches into the famous beatitudes.
“Those who realize their spiritual poverty are blessed, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. Those who mourn are blessed, for they will be comforted. The gentle are blessed, for they will inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, for they will be filled. The merciful are blessed, for they will be shown mercy. The pure in heart are blessed, for they will see Yahweh. The peacemakers are blessed, for they will be called sons of Yahweh. Those who are persecuted for righteousness are blessed, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
You are blessed when they insult and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of Me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in Heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:3-12)
This is Matthew’s version of the famous beatitude introduction. Of the four Gospel writers, Matthew is the only one who records the very long speech which has been dubbed “The Sermon on the Mount”. The other Gospel writers only record bits and pieces of this sermon, but some of their comments really help because Matthew often tells us just the punchline without giving us prior context.
Now let’s look over this speech Jesus has made. The key to interpreting these statements correctly is to remember that God always exalts Himself. God only rewards those who are sincerely seeking Him. So whenever God says some activity will result in blessings, it must be assumed that He is talking about an activity which is centered around honoring Him. When Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit”, He means those who recognized their spiritual poverty—their need for God’s mercy and grace. When He says “blessed are the merciful”, He’s talking about those who are showing mercy out of a motivation to honor God. He’s not promoting the idea of good karma—“if you show mercy today, you’ll attract mercy to you tomorrow.” That’s just New Age foolishness. God teaches us to sincerely seek Him and honor Him in our lives simply because He says so. Then He will reward our respect for His Authority.
When Jesus says “blessed are those who mourn,” He’s talking about Jews mourning over the dark spiritual state of Israel. This was a common theme in the Bible: the few Jews who really cared about pleasing Yahweh were very upset by the spiritual darkness all around them. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Elijah—we find many examples of men groaning over the spiritual rebellion of their fellow countrymen. This is the kind of mourning Jesus is talking about. He’s not saying it’s holy to be sad. He’s not saying it gets you extra points with God to be poor. But in real life, poverty often drives people to focus more on God because they see Him as their only Source of hope and help.
Notice how at the end of the above passage, Jesus zooms in to speak special blessings over those who are loyal to Bspecifically. Before this, the Jews were thinking only of Yahweh when Jesus said people would be blessed by God. It made sense to them that Jesus would be saying Yahweh will bless people who have the heart attitudes He has listed—Yahweh has been saying these are the right heart attitudes for centuries. The Old Testament is filled with passages of Yahweh saying He wants His followers to be humble in heart, yearning for righteousness, opposed to evil, etc.. So there’s nothing new about Jesus’ list of beatitudes—it’s more like He’s proving to the Jews how well He understands what pleases Yahweh. But then He suddenly makes this leap to say that Yahweh will bless those who are persecuted because of their loyalty to Jesus. Hm. That’s a rather heady comment. It’s one thing for your pastor to stand up Sunday morning and say, “God wants us all to be humble, to do right, and to promote His values in this world.” You’d be nodding along and thinking, “Sure, that’s Sunday School basics.” But then suppose your pastor adds, “And if anyone harasses you because you attend my church and declare allegiance to me as your pastor—don’t be discouraged. God has extra blessings waiting for all those who stay loyal to me.” Here you should have some alarm bells going off. We’re supposed to be loyal to God, not some human being. What kind of pastor tries to exalt himself as so favored by God that God will actually encourage people to be loyal to him? Since when does God encourage us to follow anyone but Himself? Jesus is stepping out on some new territory here. He’s sounding a bit heady. He’s equating Himself with the prophets of old—guys like Elijah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. Hm. That sounds a bit egotistical.
Luke has a different spin on this speech. Here’s his version:
“People will hate you, shut you out, insult you, and say you are evil because you follow the Son of Man. But when they do, you will be blessed. Be full of joy at that time, because you have a great reward in Heaven. Their ancestors did the same things to the prophets. But how terrible it will be for you who are rich, because you have had your easy life. How terrible it will be for you who are full now, because you will be hungry. How terrible it will be for you who are laughing now, because you will be sad and cry. How terrible when everyone says only good things about you, because their ancestors said the same things about the false prophets.” (Lk. 6:22-26)
Notice how Jesus puts Himself in the spotlight here: He is the reason people are being persecuted. Siding with Him is going to result in great blessings in eternity. Who is the King of Heaven in the minds of the Jews? Yahweh, of course. So Jesus is saying that it’s loyalty to Him that will get them points with Yahweh. A very strong statement.
Now again, when God talks down about something, it is a given that He’s pairing that activity with a rebellious soul attitude. It isn’t a sin to be rich. But when money is your god and you let it consume you, then this earthly life really is as good as it’s ever going to be for you because you’re going to end up in Hell. It isn’t a sin to be joyful. But if you’re getting your joy out of wallowing in the things of earth and not paying any mind to God, then you’re going to end up in terrible torment. In the Old Testament we find many references to false prophets becoming quite popular with the people because they went around lying in the Name of Yahweh and saying whatever they knew the people wanted to hear. In this speech Jesus is saying that if you’re the kind of person that God’s enemies love to be around, you’re clearly on your way to Hell. Evil does not embrace the light. It doesn’t mean you can’t have some unsaved friends, but if no one is bothered by your moral stand, then obviously you aren’t making one.
We have to remember that the Old Covenant is still in effect at this time. There is no future atonement for sins, no cross that covers it all. Under the Old Covenant, if you started out well, but then decided that obeying Yahweh was too much trouble, you would end up in Hell. God was as gracious back then as He is today, but there were different rules. So when Jesus says “woe to you if you’re any of these things” He’s putting out a very valid threat. If people were currently living out of alignment with Yahweh, they should expect to go to Hell when they died. There was none of this “I’m saved by grace, so I get to spit in God’s face” baloney that is so popular among Christians today. If you wallowed in rebellion for too long, Yahweh promised to eternally curse you and cut you off.
Jesus is still speaking to His disciples using Old Covenant theology when He says:
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its salty taste, it cannot be made salty again. It is good for nothing, except to be thrown out and walked on.” (Matt. 5:13)
Here He is urging His disciples not to fall away and risk eternal damnation. They must stay faithful to God.
“You are the light that gives light to the world. A city that is built on a hill cannot be hidden. And people don’t hide a light under a bowl. They put it on a lampstand so the light shines for all the people in the house. In the same way, you should be a light for other people. Live so that they will see the good things you do and will praise your Father in Heaven.” (Matt. 5:14-16)
Notice the reference to “your Father in Heaven”. This is a reference to Yahweh, and it confirms that Jesus is speaking to a Jewish audience. Now since they are Jews who care about pleasing Yahweh, they have to be bothered by some of the egotistical statements Jesus has made. They have to be wondering what Jesus’ intentions are. He sounds so heady and He says such obnoxious things—is He trying to say He’s a higher Authority than Yahweh? Knowing their concerns, Jesus goes on to say:
“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the Law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of Yahweh’s Law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys Yahweh’s Laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” (Matt. 5:17-20)
The first part of this speech feels good to the Jews: Jesus is assuring them that He isn’t trying to trump Yahweh. In fact, He’s saying that He’s all for the Law and the Prophets—that He has no intention of violating Scripture. Big sigh of relief there. And then He says that obeying Yahweh’s Law is as important as ever—totally obeying it—down to the smallest jot and tittle. Well, yes, that sounds right. But then He throws in this bit about the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees being insufficient—say what?? The scribes and Pharisees were icons of righteousness in Jewish society. They claimed to be perfect in Yahweh’s sight and they were so sure of themselves that people believed them. The common people looked up to the Pharisees like distant stars of perfection who they could never hope to compete with. And now Jesus is saying that to even get into Yahweh’s Kingdom, one had to be more righteous than the perfect Pharisees? How was this even possible? Suddenly everyone’s feeling depressed and now Jesus launches into a review of some of Yahweh’s famous Laws and just what was required to keep those Laws well in the sight of God.
“You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire. So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:21-24)
Whoa. This isn’t at all how the Pharisees teach. They would have interpreted Yahweh’s command not to murder as just that—don’t go out and kill someone. But here Jesus is defining this command as going much deeper. He’s saying that if you harbor any angry or hateful feelings towards your brother in the privacy of your own heart, you’re guilty of murder in the eyes of Yahweh. This is sobering—and now pleasing Yahweh really seems impossible to do. But Jesus is just getting started.
“You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into Hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into Hell!” (Matt. 5:27-30)
First Jesus tells His Jewish followers that they have to be more righteous than the already perfect Pharisees. Now He’s demanding the impossible. What man hasn’t secretly lusted after a woman? Gouging out eyes? Cutting off hands? This is all getting uncomfortably extreme. One minute Jesus was encouraging them with promises of positive blessings, now He’s telling them they’re all going to burn in Hell unless they can purge their hearts and minds of impossible things.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to Yahweh. But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by Heaven, because it is Yahweh’s throne; or by the earth, because it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. Neither should you swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. But let your word ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one.”
Jesus is intentionally quoting the Old Testament as He goes along. “The city of the great King” is from Psalm 48:2:
“Mount Zion on the slopes of the north is the city of the great King.”
Of course that great King is Yahweh. Jesus is also quoting famous commands from the Torah whenever He says “you have heard that it was said to our ancestors”. That thing about not breaking oaths is found in Leviticus 19, Numbers 30, and Deuteronomy 24.
You must not swear falsely by My Name, profaning the Name of your God; I am Yahweh. (Lev. 19:12)
Jesus’ constant references to Scripture proves He really knows His stuff, but the way He’s applying the familiar verses is quite disturbing. The Jews are used to making constant oaths. They were swearing by Yahweh’s Name all throughout the Old Testament and after watching them in action in Lesson 41, we can appreciate why Jesus is calling an end to swearing things. Enough with the empty promises. Stop with the dramatic oaths. Just be a person of your word.
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your coat as well. If a Roman soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matt. 5:38-42)
Jesus has already taken things to shocking extremes by saying one nasty thought or word is equivalent to murder. But now He’s really getting ridiculous. Don’t resist an evildoer? Give up your right to self-defense? Most of this audience is from the lower classes of society. They aren’t rich. They don’t have closets stuffed with clothes. Tunics and coats were expensive and they were worn to rags. To have someone take your tunic was a real crisis—but Jesus is saying you ought to throw in the coat for free? What??
In these times, Roman soldiers could demand forced labor from anyone they wanted. It was humiliating. The Jewish revolutionaries encouraged people to fight back. Here Jesus counters those who dream of Israel’s political freedom by saying the Jews should just eat it, and see the whole thing as a chance to honor Yahweh. By now there has to be a lot of uncomfortable squirming, a lot of angry muttering. Turn the other cheek? Who does Jesus think He’s kidding? What kind of Messiah tells Yahweh’s chosen people to act like doormats?
In His Old Covenant Laws, Yahweh addressed many grisly situations in which people could injure each other. One of the general guidelines He laid down for men who got into a fight with each there was this:
“If there is an injury, then you must give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound.” (Ex. 21:23-25)
The point of this Law was to curb violence, not encourage it. If you knew that chopping someone’s hand off would result in you getting your own hand lopped off, you were much more likely to practice restraint. Yahweh never intended for His Laws to be used as an excuse to never show compassion or mercy. On the contrary, He wanted those things to supersede literal interpretations of His Laws. But in Jesus’ time, He is well aware that the Sadducees are big fans of this “eye for eye” principle and they used it to justify all kinds of merciless acts. By promoting an entirely different application of this Law, Jesus is directly countering the lords of the Temple.
“You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in Heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:43-45)
This is a nice little zinger for Old Covenant Jews. Rifle through the Psalms and you’ll find King David writing reams of hateful sentiment towards his enemies. Under the Old Covenant “righteous anger” was considered quite appropriate. Once you view Israel as Yahweh’s chosen nation, then you feel justified in hating anyone who attacks her. An enemy of Israel was an enemy of God, so to hate that enemy was to declare loyalty to God. Here Jesus puts out another shocking reversal of Old Covenant thinking: love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. What?? Love the icky foreign Romans? Pray for them?? No way! Since when does Yahweh expect His chosen people to stoop to such depths?
Now in real life both Covenants center around the same two themes of loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbor as ourselves. But we humans always revise God’s rules to suit our own agenda. By the time of Jesus, the Jews were a million miles from loving their neighbors. Instead, they were steeped in hateful bigotry which they actually believed was pleasing in the sight of God.
Jesus now throws out another zinger by pointing out the fact that Yahweh blesses both the good AND the evil. This is quite true, of course, but it isn’t what an Old Covenant Jew wants to hear. Under the Old Covenant, Yahweh promised to only bless those who were faithful to Him. He promised to curse those who disobeyed Him. Many Jews are still trying to believe in that simplistic system. Of course they are in total denial about how rebellious they are. They figure that just being Jewish is enough to make Yahweh owe them special favors. But here Jesus brings everyone a much needed reality check: Yahweh blesses the good AND the evil. He expects His followers to do the same: to love both their friends and their enemies. His followers are supposed to be living on a higher moral plane.
“For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:46-48)
Be as perfect as Yahweh?? At this point the crowd had to be dwindling. Jesus is delusional if He thinks people can actually live up to His impossible standards. Those who don’t care about pleasing God would be scoffing. Those who really care about pleasing God would be feeling like depressed failures. Jesus is putting the bar impossibly high. How could anyone really hope to please Yahweh now?
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt. 6:1-4)
This is a direct attack on the Pharisees, who loved to flaunt their righteous deeds. They really did blow trumpets. They really did soak in the applause. They also prayed long, loud, flowery prayers in synagogues and on public streets so that everyone would think they were righteous. Jesus tells His followers not to do any of these things. Then He throws out the ideal prayer.
THE LORD’S PRAYER
“Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask Him! Instead, pray like this:
Our Father in Heaven, may Your Name be honored as holy. May Your Kingdom come soon. May Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today the food we need, and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us. And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matt. 6:8-15)
We never hear the famous “Lord’s Prayer” in its original context. If we did, we’d realize that Jesus never intended for Christians to pray this way. There are many things wrong with this prayer. For one thing, it’s far too directive. We shouldn’t be telling God when to bring His Kingdom. And after Jesus just got done saying that God knows all about our needs, why would we then go on to ask God for food? Is Jesus suggesting that if we don’t ask God, He might forget to take care of us? No, this prayer is not at all what it seems to be at first glance. Jesus isn’t trying to teach people how to pray, He’s trying to drive them into utter despair about their moral depravity. The first line in this prayer is intended to inspire guilt: “may Your Name be honored as holy” or the famous “hallowed be Thy Name.” Several times in the Old Testament, Yahweh complained that the sins of His people were defaming His Name on earth. So to pray for Yahweh’s Name to be honored on earth is akin to praying that His people will perfectly obey Him. All the Jews on this mountainside know that their society is a long ways from perfect. And after Jesus has listed off so many ways that each individual Jew is contributing to Israel’s moral depravity, no serious Yahweh follower could pray the first line of this prayer without squirming with conviction.
This whole sermon is about making people realize that they are falling drastically short of actually meeting Yahweh’s demands for perfect righteousness. Jesus is hammering the same point of “you’re a moral failure in God’s eyes” over and over again. Each time He comes at it from a different angle. How you think is wrong. How you act is wrong. What you want is wrong. All your role models are wrong. You’re going to Hell, you’re going to Hell, you’re going to Hell. This is what sincere Yahweh followers are hearing and it’s terrifying. There’s nothing beautiful about the Sermon on the Mount. This isn’t “good moral teaching”. This is condemnation. This is “You’re all a bunch of moral scum and Yahweh’s going to throw you into Hell the minute you die.” This is nightmare material, and this prayer Jesus throws out just makes it worse.
You don’t need your pastor to tell you what Jesus’ point is in putting out the Lord’s Prayer. Let Jesus Himself tell you—notice how He gives the prayer, then immediately emphasizes the one line He wants you to focus in on:
“For if you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matt. 6:8-15)
If you’ve been tracking with Jesus so far, you should be able to surmise that from Yahweh’s perspective, you’re not forgiving well enough. After all, if He thinks one snarky comment is akin to murder, what must His definition of sufficient forgiveness be? Jesus is telling His listeners that Yahweh WILL NOT forgive their sins. It’s a big newsflash which still slaps unbelievers across the face today: NONE OF YOU are in the right place with Yahweh. You thought you were, but you’re really not. Yahweh has a long list of areas in which you’re falling short: wrong attitudes, wrong actions, and now insufficient forgiveness. So go ahead, pray the Lord’s Prayer. Keep telling yourself that your salvation hangs on your ability to perfectly forgive every person who sins against you. Then feel the dread of realizing that you’re falling short, because you know there are people in this world who make you angry. You know there are people you read about in the news who you have no compassion for. You know there are people that you feel free to criticize and slander and condemn because they do things you don’t like. Guess what? That’s not forgiveness. That’s not loving your enemy. That’s not being as perfect as Yahweh. You’re going to Hell.
So far, Jesus hasn’t offered any solution to this problem. Sure He sounded all cheery at first with His list of beatitudes. But now He’s ground everyone’s pride down into the dirt. Now He’s reduced them all to a bunch of depraved wretches. Everything they do is wrong. Even their best efforts aren’t good enough. EVERYONE’S GOING TO HELL.
You’re not supposed to enjoy reading the Sermon on the Mount. You’re supposed to feel terribly condemned by it. You’re supposed to feel like a big sack of wet cement is settling down on your shoulders. Your best efforts are garbage to God: that’s what Jesus is telling you. He’s intentionally creating a theological crisis for Old Covenant Jews who have never considered that their Covenant wasn’t enough to get them saved. It certainly used to be. But suddenly Yahweh is changing the rules, so Jesus has come to paint the Old Covenant in a far more sinister light. The same Laws that used to inspire psalms of praise in the Old Testament are being changed into terrifying sentences of eternal damnation. David found life and hope when he studied Yahweh’s Laws. But Jesus now wants people to find death and despair. The purpose of the Old Covenant has been changed. It used to be the way to salvation. Now Jesus has turned it into an oppressive set of rules that makes you realize your desperate need for a Savior to come and rescue you from your sins. It’s a shocking transition. Be glad you’re not an Old Covenant Jew sitting on that grassy hillside trying to sort this mess out because there are no easy answers.
Jesus gave some very long sermons in His day and there’s a lot more He’s going to say before concluding this famous sermon. In our next lesson, we’ll hear Him making some very familiar statements that Christians love to isolate as positive, stand alone thoughts. But when we study them in context, we’ll learn that things aren’t nearly as positive as we like to pretend.
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