A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 7:28-29. Conclusion: who is this preacher?

7. The authority of Jesus as God.

I realise that, whenever we venture to enquire into the divine self-consciousness of Jesus, we are trying to take soundings in water too deep for us to fathom. That he knew God as ‘my Father’ is clear, and also that he knew his own Sonship to be unique. But now we can take a further hesitating step. For there is evidence that he thought of himself as being on a par with God, even one with God. It is not that he ever said this in so many words in the Sermon, but that his claim to exercise divine prerogatives and his ways of speaking of himself imply it. Three examples may be given.

The first concerns the final beatitude. It will be remembered that eight beatitudes are generalizations in the third person (‘Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers,’ etc.), while a ninth changes to the second person as Jesus addresses his disciples: ‘Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ (Mt.5:11,12). It is this analogy with the prophets which is arresting. The logic seems to be this: Jesus expects his followers to have to suffer for his sake (‘on my account’), and then likens their persecution to that of the Old Testament prophets. Now those prophets suffered for their faithfulness to God, while the disciples of Jesus were to suffer for their faithfulness to him. The implication is unavoidable. If he is likening his disciples to God’s prophets (and he did later ‘send’ them out as the prophets had been ‘sent’ (cf.Mt.10:1 ff)), he is likening himself to God. As Chrysostom put it at the end of the fourth century, ‘He here …covertly signifies his own dignity, and his equality in honour with him who begat him.’.

A similar equivalent is implied in the two other examples. When he warned them that a person who merely addressed him as ‘Lord, Lord’ would not enter the kingdom of heaven, one would have expected him to go on ‘but he who submits to my lordship’ or ‘but he who obeys me as Lord’. And this is, in fact, what we find in Luke’s version of the Sermon, where calling him ‘Lord, Lord’ is contrasted with doing what he says. But according to Matthew 7:21 he continued, ‘but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven’. If, then, Jesus regarded obeying him as Lord and doing the Father’s will as equivalents, he was putting himself on a level with God. It is all the more impressive because Jesus was not going out of his way to make an assertion about himself. Such was not his purpose in the context. This token of his divine self-consciousness slipped out when he was speaking about something quite different, namely the meaning of true discipleship.

The same is true in the third example. It comes in the following verses which are about the day of judgement and have already been mentioned. Everybody knew that God was the Judge. So did Jesus. He did not here advance a direct and specific claim that God had committed the judgement of the world to him. He just knew that on the last day people would appeal to him and that he would have the responsibility to pass sentence on them. And in saying so, he again equated himself with God.

Here, then, is your ‘original Jesus’, your ‘simple, harmless teacher of righteousness’, whose Sermon on the Mount contains ‘plain ethics and no dogmas’! He teaches with the authority of God and lays down the law of God. He expects people to build the house of their lives on his words, and adds that only those who do so are wise and will be safe. He says he has come to fulfil the law and the prophets. He is both the Lord to be obeyed and the Saviour to bestow blessing. He casts himself in the central role of the judgement-day drama. He speaks of God as his Father in a unique sense, and finally implies that what he does God does and that what people do to him they are doing to God.

We cannot escape the implication of all this. The claims of Jesus were indeed put forward so naturally, modestly and indirectly that many people never even notice them. But they are there; we cannot ignore them and still retain our integrity. Either they are true, or Jesus was suffering from what C.S.Lewis called a ‘rampant megalomania ‘. Can it be seriously maintained, however, that the lofty ethics of the Sermon on the Mount are the product of a deranged mind? It requires a high degree of cynicism to reach that conclusion.

The only alternative is to take Jesus at his word, and his claims at their face value. In this case, we must respond to his Sermon on the Mount with deadly seriousness. For here is his picture of God’s alternative society. These are the standards, the values and the priorities of the kingdom of God. Too often the church has turned away from this challenge and sunk into a bourgeois, conformist respectability. At such times it is almost indistinguishable from the world, it has lost its saltiness, its light is extinguished and it repels all idealists. For it gives no evidence that it is God’s new society which is tasting already the joys and powers of the age to come. Only when the Christian community lives by Christ’s manifesto will the world be attracted and God be glorified. So when Jesus calls us to himself, it is to this that he calls us. For he is the Lord of the counter-culture.
Tomorrow: This bring us to the end of John Stott’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount or the Christian counter-culture. Tomorrow we start on John Stott’s commentary on The Message of Acts.

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.