A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:1,2. Introduction: What is the Sermon (continued).
At other times Jesus contrasts his disciples not with Gentiles but with Jews, not (that is) with heathen people but with religious people, in particular with the ‘scribes and Pharisees’. Professor Jeremias is no doubt right to distinguish between these as ‘two quite different groups’ in that ‘the scribes are the theological teachers who have had some years of education, the Pharisees on the other hand are not theologians, but rather groups of pious laymen from every part of the community’. Certainly Jesus sets Christian morals over against the ethical casuistry of the scribes (5:21-48) and Christian devotion over against the hypocritical piety of the Pharisees (6:1-18).
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 counter-culture. Here is a Christian value-system, ethical standard, religious devotion, attitude to money, ambition, life-style and network of relationships – all of which are totally at variance with those of the non-Christian world. And this Christian counter-culture is the life of the kingdom of God, a fully human life indeed but lived out under the divine rule.
We come now to Matthew’s editorial introduction to the Sermon, which is brief but impressive; it indicates the importance which he attached to it.
Matt 5:1-2 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them.
There can be little doubt that Jesus’ main purpose in going up a hill or mountain to teach was to withdraw from the ‘great crowds… from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan’ (4:25) who had been following him. He had spent the early months of his public ministry wandering throughout Galilee, ‘teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people’. As a result, ‘his fame spread throughout all Syria’, and people came in large numbers bringing their sick to be healed (Mt.4:23, 24). So he had to escape, not just to secure for himself the opportunity to be quiet and to pray, but also to give more concentrated instruction to his disciples.
Further, it seems likely (as many commentators ancient and modern have suggested) that he deliberately *went up on the mountain* to teach, in order to draw a parallel between Moses who received the law at Mount Sinai and himself who explained its implications to his disciples on the so-called ‘Mount of the Beatitudes’, the traditional site of the Sermon on the northern shores of the Lake of Galilee. For, although Jesus was greater than Moses and although his message was more gospel than law, yet he did choose twelve apostles as the nucleus of a new Israel to correspond to the twelve patriarchs and tribes of the old. He also claimed to be both teacher and lord, gave his own authoritative interpretation of the Moses’ law, issued commandments and expected obedience. He even later invited his disciples to assume his ‘yoke’ or submit to his teaching, as they had previously borne the yoke of Torah (Mt. 11:29, 30).
Some scholars have constructed very elaborate schemes to demonstrate this parallel. B.W.Bacon in 1918, for example, argued that Matthew deliberately structured his Gospel in five sections, each ending with the formula ‘when Jesus had finished…’ (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1), in order that the ‘five books of Matthew’ might correspond to the ‘five books of Moses’ and so be a kind of New Testament Pentateuch.
A different parallelism was suggested by Austin Farrer, namely that Matthew 5-7 was modelled on Exodus 20-24, the eight beatitudes corresponding to the ten commandments, with the rest of the Sermon expounding and applying them as the commandments were also expounded and applied.
These ingenious attempts to find parallels are understandable because in many passages of the New testament the saving work of Jesus is pictured as a new exodus (Cf. Mt.2:15), and the Christian life as a joyful celebration of it: ‘For Christ, our pascal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival.’ (1 Cor.5:7, 8). Yet Matthew does not explicitly liken Jesus to Moses, and we cannot legitimately claim more than that in the Sermon ‘the *substance* of the New Law, the New Sinai, the New Moses are present.’
At all events Jesus *sat down*, assuming the posture of a rabbi, or legislator, and *his disciples came to him*, to listen to his teaching. Then *he opened his mouth* (an expression indicating the solemnity of his utterance) *and taught them*.
Three basic questions immediately form in the mind of a modern reader who studies the Sermon on the Mount. He is not likely to be receptive to its teaching unless he is given satisfactory answers to these questions. First, is the Sermon on the Mount an authentic utterance of Jesus? Did He really preach it Secondly, are its contents relevant to the contemporary world, or are they hopelessly out of date? Thirdly, are its standards attainable, or must we dismiss them as a largely impractical ideal?
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:1, 2. Is the Sermon authentic?
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.