A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5: 2). Is the Sermon relevant?
Whether the Sermon is relevant to modern life or not can be judged only by a detailed examination of its contents. What is immediately striking is that, however it came to be composed, it forms a wonderfully coherent whole. It depicts the behaviour which Jesus expected of each of his disciples, who is also thereby a citizen of Gods’ kingdom. We see him as he is in himself, in his heart, motives and thoughts, and in the secret place with his Father. We also see him in the area of public life, in his relations with his fellow men, showing mercy, making peace, being persecuted, acting like salt, letting his light shine, loving and serving others (even his enemies), and devoting himself above all to the extension of God’s kingdom and righteousness in the world. Perhaps a brief analysis of the Sermon will help to demonstrate its relevance to ourselves in the twentieth century.
a). A Christian’s character (5:3-12).
The beatitudes emphasize eight principal marks of Christian character and conduct especially in relation to God and to men, and the divine blessing which rests on those who exhibit these marks.
b). A Christian’s influence (5:13-16).
The two metaphors of salt and light indicate the influence for good which Christians will exert in the community if (and only if) they maintain their distinctive character as portrayed in the beatitudes.
c). A Christian’s righteousness (5:17-48).
What is to be a Christian’s attitude to the moral law of God? Is the very category of law abolished in the Christian life, as the advocates of the ‘new morality’ and of the ‘not under law’ school strangely assert? No. Jesus had not come to abolish the law and the prophets, he said, but to fulfil them. He went on to state both that greatness in God’s kingdom was determined by conformity to their moral reaching, and even that entry into the kingdom was impossible without a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:17-20). Of this greater Christian righteousness he then gave six illustrations (5:21-48), relating to murder, adultery, divorce, swearing, revenge, and love. In each antithesis (‘You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…’) he rejected the easy-going tradition of the scribes, reaffirming the authority of the Old Testament Scripture and drew out the full and exacting implications of God’s moral law.
d). A Christian’s piety (6:1-18).
In their ‘piety’ or religious devotion Christians are to resemble neither the hypocritical display of the Pharisees nor the mechanical formalism of the pagans. Christian piety is to be marked above all by reality, by the sincerity of God’s children who live in their heavenly Father’s presence.
e). A Christian’s Ambition (6:19-34).
The ‘worldliness’ which Christians are to avoid can take either a religious or a secular shape. So we are to differ from non-Christians not only in our devotions, but also in our ambitions. In particular, Christ changes our attitude to material wealth and possessions. It is impossible to worship both God and money; we have to choose between them. Secular people are preoccupied with the quest for food, drink and clothing. Christians are to be free of these self-centred material anxieties and instead to give themselves to the spread of God’s rule and God’s righteousness. That is to say, our supreme ambition is to be the glory of God, and neither our own glory nor even our own material well-being. It is a question of what we ‘seek first’.
f). A Christian’s relationships. (7:1-20).
Christians are caught up in a complex network of relationships, each of which arises from our relation to Christ. Once we are properly related to Him, our other relationships are all affected. New relationships are created; old relationships are changed. Thus, we are not to judge our brother but to serve him (1-5). We are also to avoid offering the gospel to those who have decisively rejected it (6), to keep praying to our heavenly Father (7-12) and to beware of false prophets who hinder people from finding the narrow gate and the hard way (13-20).
g). A Christian’s commitment (7:21-27).
The ultimate issue posed by the whole sermon concerns the authority of the preacher. It is not enough either to call him ‘Lord’ (21-23) or to listen to his teaching (24-27). The basic question is whether we *mean* what we say and *do* what we hear. On this commitment hangs our eternal destiny. Only the man who obeys Christ as Lord is wise. For only he is building his house on a foundation of rock, which the storms neither of adversity nor of judgment will be able to undermine.
The crowds were astonished by the authority with which Jesus taught (28,29). It is an authority to which the followers of Jesus in every generation must submit. The issue of the Lordship of Christ is as relevant today, both in principle and in detailed application, as when he originally preached his Sermon on the Mount.
Tomorrow: Is the Sermon practical?
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.