When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
Matthew 5:1 (NRSV)
This introduces a section that is commonly known as “The Beatitudes” or “The Sermon on the Mount.” This prologue may not seem that devotional, and you may be right, but I feel like we have to take a look at what Matthew is telling us in the story before going through the pieces.
Matthew’s phrasing has always struck me as funny. “When Jesus saw the crowds,” presumably the crowds mentioned at the end of chapter 4 who are coming from all over the region and from places as far away as Jerusalem and the cities of the Decapolis. This text almost makes it sound like Jesus turns around and, all of a sudden, notices all these crowds have shown up. Man, those guys were quiet.
But of course, what Matthew is saying is that the presence of these crowds gives Jesus an occasion to deliver some relevant teaching. So, he goes up a mountain and his disciples follow. Luke 6, by contrast, has Jesus going down to a level place, which is the opposite of going up a mountain. Why does Matthew have the sermon given “on the Mount?”
I think part of the answer goes to the common theme of Jesus living out the experience of faithful Israel. We’ve already seen plenty of allusions to the Exodus in the first four chapters of Matthew. This is probably another one. Moses delivers the Law from Mount Sinai, and this Law defines what faithful Israel looks like in his day. It is very likely that Matthew is recapturing that image. Jesus delivers the Beatitudes from this mountain, and it defines what faithful Israel looks like in his day.
But we also have to consider that “in his day” part.
The Law Moses delivered at Sinai was not the last law Israel would receive. There would be more. Further, some of the laws would simply not be applicable as the historical state of affairs of Israel changed. For example, in Exodus 20:24, we have a law that Israel can just dig up some earth, make an altar out of it, and offer sacrifices there, and YHVH will come to it and bless them. This law makes a lot of sense when you’re wandering about in the wilderness.
By contrast, Deuteronomy 12:13-14 specifically warns the Israelites not to offer sacrifices anywhere they happen to see, but only in the place that God specifically selects. This is appropriate when you happen to have a permanent residence. Further, a permanent Temple would one day take the place of the Tabernacle and be the place of sacrifice.
In other words, while the general principles behind the laws seem to be the same – you have to offer sacrifices to YHVH the way He wants them – the particulars shift based on the historical realities of Israel at the time.
When Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount, he is giving it to Israel at a particular historical juncture that Matthew has already drilled into our heads – the kingdom of God is at hand, and faithful Israel is to repent and be restored so that she will not fall under the same judgement as her oppressors. The people who are on top are about to be toppled, and the people on the bottom are about to be exalted, provided they remain faithful and continue to trust in God for their deliverance.
This dynamic is behind many Beatitudes in the Old Testament. It is a very popular literary form that designates a particular category of person as “blessed,” and often contrasts them with the wicked. Psalm 112 is a great example and many of its themes show up in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact the very first Psalm in your Bible is a beatitude. Here are the blessed people – look at the great things that will happen to them. And, if we have time to go into it, here are the bad things that will happen to the people who are not like this.
At the feet of Jesus, Israel sits at the brink of a historical and eschatological crisis. The judgement against their age is coming. The kingdom is at hand. What, then, does faithful Israel look like in this period the Old Testament has foretold? The Messiah has come. The engine of the coming kingdom is revving. They are entering into an event in their history that is in a real sense the height of their expectations up to that point. We need to take into account the fact that these categories are announced to a particular people in that particular historical situation – one that we as 21st century Gentiles, or even Jews for that matter – do not share.
However, as we look through the Sermon on the Mount, we begin to see things that Israel has always been meant to be. Even in their days of great prosperity, were they ever not supposed to be humble? Were they ever not supposed to be a city on a hill? Were they ever not supposed to treasure righteousness more than gold or jewels?
And as we look outward to the future people of God long past the destruction of Jerusalem or the fall of pagan Rome, do we not still find the people of God oppressed? Do we not still find them with enemies? Do they not wait for the vindication of the Lord, either in their present circumstances or the resurrection and renewal of the creation?
So, on the one hand, we may be asking for trouble to take the Sermon on the Mount and drop it and all its particulars right on top of all Christians everywhere at all times, just like Israel with her Temple couldn’t just pick up the law about digging up an altar wherever they happened to be and drop it and all its particulars on their current situation. They were in a different situation, and that required new ways of being faithful.
But by the same token, we will find resonances in the Sermon of what the people of God have always been called to be, especially in a world where we still face opposition and hostility. We will find these things in Jesus and, perhaps most tellingly, we find these things flowing out of Spirit-filled people who “have not the Law.” We will find in this extended section of Jesus’ teaching markers of the kingdom, and we will find in it hints of new creation. All these things define our experience, today, and as we go, I expect we will find a good deal of continuity with our forefathers at the mountain.
- Does it make you uncomfortable to think of God’s laws for his people shifting somewhat with their historical circumstances? Why is that? What do laws mean to you? Are there any parts of the Old Testament law you do not think apply to the people of God, today?
- When we look at Old Testament laws, is there a way to recognize a “bigger picture” that might transcend the circumstances of that particular law? How might that help us as we look at the Sermon on the Mount?