Read the Passage: Matthew 5:1-48
Characterization of Believers (5:1–16)
Matt. 5:1 begins the first of five teaching and narrative cycles in Matthew’s Gospel. The teaching section covers Matt. 5–7, and the narrative covers Matt. 8–9. Continuing to draw parallels between Moses and Jesus, Matthew describes Jesus as ascending up a mountain, as did Moses, in order to disclose principles of conduct. A major difference, however, is that whereas Moses ascended Mt. Sinai alone, Jesus was accompanied by the multitudes. In Matt. 5:3–12 Jesus gives what have become known as the beatitudes. Note that a beatitude is a state of supreme happiness. In this passage, Jesus is not describing a self-generated attribute, but a quality bestowed upon believers by the Lord as part of salvation. Indeed, a main theme of this chapter is that salvation is not by good works, but rather is a gift of God made possible through Christ that inevitably results in good works.
After describing or characterizing believers in Matt. 5:1–12, which included the teaching that believers will be persecuted and reviled by the world, in Matt. 5:13–16 Jesus gives a rationale for bearing testimony before the world. Here Jesus uses two illustrations: salt and light. Essentially, Christ teaches that believers are to bring divine flavor, preservation, and light to the dark world. This happens as the good works, which are the result of salvation, are naturally manifest. Interestingly, the specific rationale that Jesus mentions, apart from the utilitarian goodness of being salt and light is “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). The idea here, which Peter also cites at 1 Pet. 2:11–12, is that even the lost will have to glorify God for his disclosure of truth at the time of their own judgment and display of God’s wrath (cf. Rom. 9:22–24).
Ministry of Jesus (5:17–20)
In Matt. 5:17–19 Jesus teaches about the relevance of the law, noting that he did not come “to destroy the Law or the Prophets . . . but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). He notes that not the tiniest part of the Law will disappear until all that God desires and has revealed is accomplished (cf. Matt. 5:18). Moreover, Jesus notes that breaking the law makes one “least in the kingdom of heaven,” while keeping the law makes one “great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19). The double reference to teaching men in Matt. 5:19 shows that Jesus is appealing to the Pharisees, the religious teachers, whom he calls out by name in Matt. 5:20. Jesus’ point in this passage is two-fold; first, to teach that the scribes and Pharisees were not righteous; they were merely legalists. Second, Jesus makes the point that true righteousness involves more than just external conduct—a fact that is unfolded and emphasized in the following verses.
Behavior of Disciples (5:21–48)
In Matt. 5:21–48 Jesus illustrates the kind of righteousness that he had described and prescribed in Matt. 5:1–20 by teaching about acceptable behavior for disciples. In this passage Jesus teaches about many topics, including life, marriage, truth, and love. In his teaching relating to the sanctity of life, Jesus quotes the sixth commandment (cf. Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17) and notes that self-righteous anger is a breach of the law. Then, in Matt. 5:23–26 Jesus teaches that true righteousness entails more than just external behavior. Christ teaches that disunity in the church caused by hate is so grievous that remedying it is more important than worship. Peace among believers, as well as avoiding anger, is so important that the “innocent” party is to pursue the “guilty” party (cf. Matt. 5:23–24) in order to reconcile, possibly even accepting wrong (cf. Matt. 5:25–26).
After discoursing upon adultery, divorce, and oaths, in Matt. 5:27–37, in Matt. 5:38–42 Jesus discusses the divine standard of retaliation. Many of the Jews probably already thought that they knew the divine standard of retaliation, as they had the lex talionis of Exod. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; and Deut. 19:21. Yet here Jesus reveals these verses, which were viewed by many as giving a victim the right to counter-assault an attacker, was not meant to empower victims, but to limit their retributive acts. Moreover, as Christ teaches, the standard of divine righteousness would be to not retaliate at all, but to abandon notions of self-rights. Jesus notes that whether it involves one’s dignity (cf. Matt. 5:39), one’s assets (cf. Matt. 5:40), one’s liberty (cf. Matt. 5:41), or one’s property (cf. Matt. 5:42), the correct action is the one that humbles self in view of the best interest of another.
- Why did Jesus give the Sermon on the Mount? Why does Matthew include this narrative?
- How can Jesus teach that we are blessed if we are poor, mourning, meek, hungry, etc.? How do these beatitudes constitute blessings (cf. 1 Pet. 3:17; 4:19)?
- How can one be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees who were nearly perfect in regard to their external conduct?
- How can a Christian believe that murder is wrong (cf. Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17) and that capital punishment is mandated (cf. Gen. 9:5–6; Rom. 13:4)?
- In what area of your life do you find it most difficult not to retaliate? Have you ever found retaliation to be satisfying?