Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount
The essential theme of the whole Bible from beginning to end is that God’s historical purpose is to call out a people for himself; that this people is a ‘holy’ people, set apart from the world to belong to him and to obey him; and that its vocation is to be true to its identity, that is, to be ‘holy’ or ‘different’ in all its outlook and behavior.
This is how God put it to the people of Israel soon after he had rescued them from their Egyptian slavery and made them his special people by covenant: ‘I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall do my ordinances and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God’ (Lev. 18:1-4). This appeal of God to his people, it will be noted, began and ended with the statement that he was the Lord their God. It was because he was their covenant God, and because they were his special people, that they were to be different from everybody else. They were to follow his commandments and not take their lead from the standards of those around them.
Throughout the centuries which followed, the people of Israel kept forgetting their uniqueness as the people of God. Although in Balaam’s words they were ‘a people dwelling alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations’, yet in practice they kept becoming assimilated to the people around them: ‘They mingled with the nations and learned to do as they did’ (1 Sam. 8:5, 19, 20). So they demanded a king to govern them ‘like all the nations.’ Worse even than the inauguration of the monarchy was their idolatry. ‘Let us be like the nations,’ they said to themselves, ‘…and worship wood and stone’ (Ezek. 20:32). So God kept sending his prophets to them to remind them who they were and to plead with them to follow his way. ‘Learn not the way of the nations,’ he said to them through Jeremiah, and through Ezekiel, ‘Do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God’ (Jer. 10:1, 2; Ezek. 20:7). But God’s people would not listen to his voice, and the specific reason given why his judgment fell first upon Israel and then nearly 150 years later upon Judah was the same: ‘The people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God… and had… walked in the customs of the nations…. Judah also did not keep the commandments of the Lord their God, but walked in the customs which Israel had introduced’ (2 Kings 17:7, 8, 19; cf. Ezek. 5:7; 11:12).
All this is an essential background to any understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is found in Matthew’s Gospel towards the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Immediately after his baptism and temptation he had begun to announce the good news that the Kingdom of God, long promised in the Old Testament era, was now on the threshold. He himself had come to inaugurate it. With him the new age had dawned, and the rule of God had broken into history. ‘Repent,’ he cried, ‘for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matt. 4:17). Indeed, ‘He went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the Kingdom’ (4:23). The Sermon on the Mount, then, is to be seen in this context. It portrays the repentance and the righteousness which belong to the Kingdom. That is, it describes what human life and human community look like when they come under the gracious rule of God.
And what do they look like? Different! Jesus emphasized that his true followers, the citizens of God’s Kingdom, were to be entirely different from others. They were not to take their cue from the people around them, but from him, and so prove to be genuine children of their heavenly Father. Some have identified the key text of the Sermon on the Mount as 6:8: ‘Do not be like them.’ It is immediately reminiscent of God’s word to Israel in olden days: ‘You shall not do as they do’ (Lev. 18:3). It is the same call to be different. And right through the Sermon on the Mount this theme is elaborate. Their character was to be completely distinct from that admired by the world. They were to shine like lights in the prevailing darkness. Their righteousness was to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, both in ethical behavior and in religious devotion, while their love was to be greater and their ambition nobler than those of their pagan neighbors.
‘There is no single paragraph of the Sermon on the Mount in which this contrast between Christian and non-Christian standards is not drawn. It is the underlying and uniting theme of the Sermon; everything else is a variation of it,’ declares John Stott. He concludes:
“Thus, the followers of Jesus are to be different – different from both the nominal church and the secular world, different from both the religious and the irreligious. The Sermon on the Mount is the most complete delineation anywhere in the New Testament of the Christian counterculture. Here is a Christian value-system, ethical standard, religious devotion, attitude to money, ambition, lifestyle and network of relationships – all of which are totally at variance with those of the non-Christian world. And this Christian counterculture is the life of the Kingdom of God, a fully human life indeed but lived out under the divine rule.”
Join us as begin our study of the Sermon on the Mount this coming Lord’s Day. It has been duly noted that “The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed.” May this not be true of us. Do you want to be part of changing the world for the better? Then come and receive the Word of Christ. I am looking forward to seeing you this Sunday.