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Sermon on the Mount
Story of God Bible commentary; 21
By Scot McKnight
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 Scot McKnight
All rights reserved.
Matthew 5:1–2 and 7:28–29
LISTEN to the Story
5:1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him....
7:24 "Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash."
28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. 8:1 When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him.
Listening to the text in the Story: Matthew 4:23–25 and 9:35; 17:1–8; John 6:3; Exodus 19:3; 24:12–13; 34:1–2, 4; Deuteronomy 9:9; 10:3.
It is against every known method of reading, but we must begin reading the Sermon on the Mount by listening carefully to the ending of the Sermon (7:24–27 and 7:28–8:1) and tie that ending to the beginning at 5:1–2. As we begin at the end, we also must listen to how Matthew sets the context for the Sermon at 4:23–25 and 9:35.
First the context. When the gospel of Matthew was written, no chapter divisions were used. To indicate transitions authors in the ancient world used a quarry of devices, one of which was summary statements. Matthew's summary statement in 4:23–25 is nearly repeated verbatim in 9:35 and 10:1.
4:23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
9:35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.
10:1 Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
The italicized connections are obvious, but they are even more obvious in Greek. The only three places where these Greek words are used together in Matthew are in these three sets of verses, which leads me to this observation: Matthew 4:23–25 outlines what Matthew will tell us about Jesus' ministry (teaching, preaching, healing) in Matthew 5–9, Matthew 9:35 tells us that Matthew has completed his sketch of Jesus' ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing, and then Matthew 10:1 shows that Jesus empowered his twelve apostles to extend that sketched ministry of Jesus to others.
Put together, here's what we get: Matthew 4:23–9:35 is a sketch of the mission and ministry of Jesus: he teaches and preaches in Matthew 5–7 and he heals in Matthew 8–9. The Sermon on the Mount, then, is a comprehensive sketch of the teaching and preaching message of Jesus. In the context of Matthew's narrative, the Sermon is a presentation of Jesus' moral vision, his ethic. You could say Matthew is saying to his audience who listens to Matthew 4:23–9:35: "Here's Jesus, here's his message [5–7], here are his actions [8–9]. You can now decide."
Second, the ending of the Sermon on the Mount provides a fundamental clue on how to read the Sermon. We will provide commentary on 7:24–27 at the end of this commentary, but for now we must observe that Jesus ends the Sermon by calling people to do what he has taught. Some soften his words: "He said, 'Do this,' but he didn't mean we have to obey his words." Others see a different motive: "Jesus' aim is to drive us to our knees, not make us obey his words." These common approaches fail the words of Jesus because in the Sermon Jesus calls his followers to do what he teaches. Those who don't do what he says, in fact, are condemned as foolish. The entire Sermon on the Mount, which Augustine said was the "perfect standard of the Christian life," then drives home one haunting question:
Will you follow me?
The Sermon presents Jesus' moral vision and summons us to follow him, and the Sermon is designed to prompt one to make a decision about Jesus. Thus, we are led to think immediately of an Ethic from Above. John Stott finishes off his splendid and influential commentary on the Sermon with these words: "So Jesus confronts us with himself, sets before us the radical choice between obedience and disobedience, and calls us to an unconditional commitment of mind, will and life to his teaching." Theologically speaking, the Sermon is grounded in a Christology, a view of who Jesus is, and that Christology begins at 5:1.
EXPLAIN the Story
As God (through Moses) did not give the Torah in Egypt but waited until the Israelites were deep in the wilderness, so Jesus waited. In Matthew's narrative we observe that Jesus waited for crowds to gather around what he was doing before he set out his own moral vision. Jesus had already been baptized and been tempted, and he had returned to Galilee and called four disciples to follow him (Matt 3:1–4:22). Furthermore, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus was on a public tour of Galilee, teaching in synagogues, preaching about God's kingdom, and healing all sorts of people (4:23–25), and with crowds gathering he set forth his moral vision.
Surrounding the Sermon are notations of crowds (4:25; 5:1; 7:28; 8:1). "When Jesus saw the crowds" in 5:1, presumably the crowds of 4:25, he began to teach. The "crowds" would have included males and females as well as adults and children. There is a bit of a complication here for which there is no compelling solution: Jesus sees the crowds, sits down, and his disciples (not the crowds) gather around him, but when the Sermon is over we are told "the crowds were amazed" (7:28). The simple solution is that the crowds gathered around the disciples as Jesus taught his disciples, but it is just as possible to think Matthew has collected teachings of Jesus from various settings, some restricted and some more open to the crowds.
How Jesus begins the Sermon opens up vistas: "He went up on a mountainside [more accurately, 'into the mountain'] and sat down" (5:1). Saying Jesus went onto a "mountain" could be no more than a casual, (almost) meaningless geographical observation, and that Luke says Jesus taught from a flat place (Luke 6:17) supports such a casual view for some. Or, as so many of the early fathers thought, it could be a geographical symbol of higher reality. But anyone who reads the Bible as the Story of God suspects there is more at stake. Bible readers connect mountain with Moses. We agree: Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses figure. As Moses ascended the mountain, as Moses sat on the mountain, as Moses descended the mountain, and as Moses taught the Torah, so Jesus does the same. Some Moses themes were set before Jesus ascended the mountain: both Jesus and Moses had a dream connected to their births, the slaughter of children is connected to their births, both narrowly escaped the clutches of a despot, both had to flee and then only later could return to the land—and, like Moses, Jesus was in the wilderness, fasted forty days, was tested by God, and passed through the Jordan (though Moses died before the Jordan).
There is, then, plenty of evidence to see Matthew's description as more than accidental allusions to Moses. The expression "he went up on a mountainside" is used many times in the Old Testament, especially for Moses' ascent onto the mountain (see, e.g., Exod 19:3; 24:12–13; 34:1–2, 4; Deut 9:9; 10:3). Moses also descended the mountain, as does Jesus in Matthew 8:1, and Matthew's words here are almost verbatim from Exodus 34:29. In addition, in the Sermon itself Jesus and Moses are explicitly connected if not contrasted at 5:17–48. Jesus' teachings are set in the context of the Torah of Moses as their completion.
Not to be forgotten is that the posture of a lawgiver is sitting. As those with legal authority sat in the seat of Moses (Matt 23:2; cf. Luke 4:16, 20), so Jesus "sat down" to teach (Matt 5:1). Jesus is compared to both Moses and Elijah in 17:1–8. The early church saw Jesus taking Moses to an entirely new level, and no text is perhaps more pointed than Eusebius, Demonstration of the Gospel 3.2:
Moses was the first leader of the Jewish race. He found them attached to the deceitful polytheism of Egypt, and was the first to turn them from it, by enacting the severest punishment for idolatry. He was the first also to publish the theology of the one God, bidding them worship only the Creator and Maker of all things. He was the first to draw up for the same hearers a scheme of religious life, and is acknowledged to have been the first and only lawgiver of their religious polity. But Jesus Christ too, like Moses, only on a grander stage, was the first to originate the teaching according to holiness for the other nations, and first accomplished the rout of the idolatry that embraced the whole world. He was the first to introduce to all men the knowledge and religion of the one Almighty God. And He is proved to be the first Author and Lawgiver of a new life and of a system adapted to the holy.
And with regard to the other teaching on the genesis of the world, and the immortality of the soul, and other doctrines of philosophy which Moses was the first to teach the Jewish race, Jesus Christ has been the first to publish them to the other nations by His disciples in a far diviner form. So that Moses may properly be called the first and only lawgiver of religion to the Jews, and Jesus Christ the same to all nations, according to the prophecy which says of Him: "Set, O Lord, a lawgiver over them: that the Gentiles may know themselves to be but men." [Ps. ix. 20.]
Moses again by wonderful works and miracles authenticated the religion that he proclaimed: Christ likewise, using His recorded miracles to inspire faith in those who saw them, established the new discipline of the Gospel teaching. Moses again transferred the Jewish race from the bitterness of Egyptian slavery to freedom: while Jesus Christ summoned the whole human race to freedom from their impious Egyptian idolatry under evil daemons. Moses, too, promised a holy land and a holy life therein under a blessing to those who kept his laws: while Jesus Christ says likewise: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," promising a far better land in truth, and a holy and godly, not the land of Judaea, which in no way excels the rest (of the earth), but the heavenly country which suits souls that love God, to those who follow out the life proclaimed by Him. And that He might make it plainer still, He proclaimed the kingdom of heaven to those blessed by Him. And you will find other works done by our Saviour with greater power than those of Moses, and yet resembling the works which Moses did. As, for example, Moses fasted forty days continuously, as Scripture witnesses, saying: "And (Moses) was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights [Exod. xxxiv. 28.]; he did neither eat bread nor drink water." And Christ likewise: For it is written: "And he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being forty days tempted of the devil; and in those days he did eat nothing." [Luke iv. 1–2.]
And so on goes Eusebius as he connects Jesus to Moses in one detail after another and offers to his readers a stunning display of fulfillment in Christ. The noxious fumes of supersessionism in Eusebius fill the air and in fact have driven many Christians from seeing the importance of a Mosaic Christology. In Matthew 5:1 Jesus is presented as the new Moses, not by replacing Moses but by fulfilling Moses.
The implication is significant: Jesus is teaching the new law as the new Moses for the new people of God. As such, it partakes in an Ethic from Above, but since this ethic is so tied to Jesus, it is also a messianic ethic. Once again we are back to what we said in the introduction: this theme of Jesus' completing Israel's Story is at the heart of the Story of the gospel. The gospel is the completion of Israel's Story in the Story of Jesus, and from the get-go in the Sermon on the Mount we are ushered into the gospel reality that Israel's Torah/moral vision has now come to its completion in Jesus' moral vision. This is why the context of the Sermon (i.e., 4:23–25 and 9:35) is so important. It guides us to see in the Sermon not simply a moral vision but Jesus himself, the Jesus who is the new Moses with a new moral vision for God's new people.
LIVE the Story
A New Kind of Evangelism
I used to teach at North Park University, a Christian college that does not require a student to be a Christian for admission. But two courses in biblical and theological studies are required for graduation, one of which is a survey of Bible survey class. One such student was Hindu. She actually did her best to convince me and others not to require her to take the class on religious grounds, but what's required at a Christian college entails something about the Christian faith. She was none too happy in the first few weeks of class; then I began to detect some more interest, and by November she was participating in class discussions. She came to me near the end of the semester and said, "Professor McKnight, I want to take your class called 'Jesus of Nazareth' because I think Jesus is really interesting and I want to learn more about him." She did take that class and made significant strides in understanding the Christian faith.
This Hindu student of mine was attracted to Jesus because of the Story of Jesus she read in the Gospels. She did not make appointments with me to discuss the gospel or how to get saved. She did not hear a plan of salvation in class. Instead, through reading the Bible she was exposed to Jesus. What attracted her was Jesus.
The Sermon on the Mount, when read from the special contextual clues Matthew provides at 4:23–25 and 9:35, which in Matthew's narrative is a sketch of Jesus' teaching, preaching, and healing ministries, is just that: it is a compelling presentation of Jesus and his moral vision. Pushed to the next level, what this means is that reading or teaching or preaching the Sermon on the Mount is evangelism.
A New Kind of Teacher
What do we learn about Jesus? We learn from our passage that he is the Teacher, the new Moses. Matthew emphasizes this theme perhaps more than any of the Gospels: 8:19; 9:11, 10:24–25; 12:38; 17:24; 19:16; 22:16, 24, 36; 23:8; 26:18. Furthermore, the Sermon begins and ends on the theme of Jesus as Teacher (5:2; 7:29), and its contextual markers are about teaching (4:23; 9:35). But Jesus isn't just an ordinary teacher in the Sermon: he is presented as the new Moses, the new law-giving teacher. Matthew 5:21–48 will make this abundantly clear.
Furthermore, as Moses taught the Torah, so Jesus, the new Moses, teaches his disciples the new Torah. It is no stretch to see here something profoundly messianic: the longed-for messianic era entailed a hope that a new Torah and a new obedience would accompany the Messiah, and we see this in Jeremiah's famous new covenant passage (Jer 31:31–34). By presenting Jesus as that new Moses, Matthew is laying down a messianic claim for Jesus. This new kind of teacher is the messianic, new Moses.
John Stott is right to discuss the multidimensional authority of the Jesus who teaches the Sermon on the Mount. Stott expounds the authority of Jesus as Teacher, as the Messiah, as the Lord, as the Savior, as the Judge, as the Son of God, and as God incarnate. The most genuine readings of the Sermon lead the reader to ask: "Who is this teacher and who is this preacher? Who does he think he is?" Or, as Richard Bauckham puts it, "The only Jesus we can plausibly find in the sources is a Jesus who, though usually reticent about it, speaks and acts for God in a way that far surpassed the authority of a prophet in the Jewish tradition."
A New Posture
What does this mean for us? If Jesus is the new Moses/law-giving teacher for the new people of God, then there is one proper response: we are to assume the posture of a student.
The posture of a student, and nothing is more apropos at this point in studying the Sermon, is to sit and listen. Three gospel texts illustrate how students gathered around a teacher, the teacher stood to read the Torah, and then sat down to teach. Luke 10:39 tells us that Mary, unlike the too-busy Martha, "sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said," and when Paul describes his education, he tells us that he sat at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). And Mark 3:31–35 describes "students" or disciples of Jesus in a circle around Jesus. We can do this in simple ways: we need to read the Bible in the posture of a student, namely, in a spirit of humble reverent reception of what God says. We can commit ourselves for a season to "sit at the feet" of Jesus again by reading the Gospels in a disciplined manner—from beginning to end a time or two.
Excerpted from Sermon on the Mount by Scot McKnight. Copyright © 2013 Scot McKnight. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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