For many theologians and teachers, the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew’s gospel presents difficulties in understanding the Lord’s purpose and intention for this teaching. It is especially true for modern dispensationalists. Their mistake is one of two misinterpretations: They either mistakenly interpret the Sermon as Jesus correcting contemporary Jewish teachings which had drifted away from the law of Moses, compromising it (Judaism), or they believe the teaching is intended for the future millennium, when, in fact, the Messianic kingdom will be manifest in power and glory in the world. The first error comes from the misunderstanding of a word formula repeated by the Lord several times in the Sermon (Matt. 5:21–22, 27–28, 31–32, 33–37, 38–42, 43–48). The second comes from the multiple times the Lord uses the phrase, “the kingdom of heaven” in these chapters (Matt. 5:3, 10, 19, 20, 7:21).
Regardless of what one thinks he understands from a single verse of Scripture or a phrase that may be used, without keeping in focus the general purpose of the Spirit for writing Matthew’s gospel, it becomes easy to get “off track.” Specific details must be properly understood in light of the bigger picture. The ending purpose of this gospel is that of dispensational transition – the new Christian dispensation taking the place of the ending Jewish dispensation. And we will see that both the word formula and the phrase mentioned above are some of the specific details found in Matthew’s gospel which the Spirit of God uses to confirm the truth of this transition.
We already discussed in a previous chapter in this book the “kingdom of heaven” phrase as it is uniquely used by the Spirit in Matthew’s gospel. We discovered from the seven parables in Matthew thirteen that the phrase can only refer to a specific form the kingdom of God takes on the earth during the time of the Christian dispensation and that outwardly this form is the general body of Christendom. The use of the phrase in Matthew thirteen establishes its true meaning as it may be found in use throughout the entire gospel. It cannot take on a different meaning in other places. And I remind the reader that it is used thirty-three times in Matthew, six times in the Sermon itself. Wherever the phrase is found, it always references the time of the Christian dispensation or things associated with it: Christendom, the true church, mysteries of faith, Christianity as a religion and its practice, Christians as sons of the kingdom, the responsibility of men associated with the Christian dispensation, etc.
The assumption that the phrase refers to a Messianic kingdom by the Lord’s use of it in the Sermon on the Mount not only is without merit but is contradictory to other passages. This mistaken supposition comes from the first two uses of the phrase in this gospel (3:2, 4:17). The reasoning goes something like this: God is sending Jesus to Israel as their promised Messiah. Therefore, any reference to a kingdom must be to a Messianic kingdom for the Jews. Why? This is the only form of the kingdom of God a Jew would properly know from their prophetic Scriptures. In taking this reasoning one step further, they point out that Jesus was speaking to the hearing of the Jews in the Sermon. These may be facts of Scripture, even facts of Matthew’s gospel, however they do not justify the conclusion they come to concerning the phrase. The first two uses of the phrase have little detail other than this kingdom did not presently exist, but was soon in coming.235
235 [Consider the integrity of God involved in declaring the kingdom of heaven was “at hand,” if this phrase is made to reference a Messianic kingdom among the Jews. Their Messiah was present among them and they should have received Him, but the Jews rejected Him and the kingdom, as it would have been under Messiah. It was taken from them. The fact is, there has yet to be a Messianic kingdom in Israel to this day. Now consider that almost two thousand years of time have elapsed from when the Baptist first used the phrase, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” God is saying that this kingdom would soon come into existence. That doesn’t jive with two thousand years of elapsed time.
What did come to pass was the Christian dispensation replacing the Jewish dispensation. The “at hand” actually referred to the 3 ½ years of the Lord’s earthly ministry, not to a long-protracted period of time, still ongoing, waiting for a Messianic kingdom. After Jesus returned to heaven, the kingdom of heaven was established on earth. It came into existence on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was sent down. The words “at hand” mean soon in coming. The only proper fulfillment of God’s “at hand” declaration was the soon to be established Christian dispensation]
All six times the “kingdom of heaven” phrase is used by Jesus in Matthew’s version of the Sermon, it refers directly to what would be the proper practice of Christianity during the soon to be established Christian dispensation. The totality of this teaching instructs the future believer in Christ Jesus as to what a Christian disciple does, what his thinking and affections should be, what a walk of faith in this world looks like, how he should practice this new religion (which eventually would be known as Christianity), and the experiences and trouble he is likely to face because of this practice. The ending passage of the Sermon identifies the proper classification of this teaching.
Matthew 7:24–27 (NKJV)
24 “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: 25 and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.
26 “But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: 27 and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.”
If we can say that Christianity is a religion, then its founder is Jesus Christ. The practice of Christianity, what we would call Christian discipleship, is hearing the sayings of Jesus Christ, and doing them. This is a distinction made by the Spirit of God which serves the dispensational purpose of this gospel.236 The religion of Judaism is the practice of the law of Moses – it is hearing the sayings of Moses and doing them. The distinction made in the Sermon is that there would be a new religion replacing Judaism, because there was a new dispensation replacing the Jewish dispensation. The practice of this new religion is hearing the sayings of Jesus Christ and doing them.237
236 [The apostolic commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel emphasizes the same thing – make disciples of all the nations…teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” What Jesus has said and commanded forms the practice of Christianity. Baptizing Gentiles in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the new Christian formula for the Christian dispensation (Matt. 28:19–20)]
237 [Here we are only referring to the practice of a religion. Every religion has its distinct practice associated with it – the doing of certain words, sayings, policies, ordinances, commands, etc. In this respect Christianity is no different from other religions – it also has a practice. What the Sermon makes clear is that Christianity involves a practice distinct from other religions.
What is never mentioned or discussed in the Sermon is how any person actually becomes a Christian. The Sermon doesn’t present the Christian gospel and is not evangelical. There is no reference to the death of Christ, which is the foundation and basis of the Christian gospel. The only topic discussed in the Sermon is the general practice of Christianity, which is associated with the “kingdom of heaven.” And hopefully everyone realizes that one must become a Christian first, before there can be any legitimate practice of Christianity as a religion. Relationship must precede responsibility]
This leads into a discussion of the second error of interpretation mentioned at the beginning of this chapter – the word formula the Lord repeats six times in Matthew’s Sermon (Matt. 5:21–22, 27–28, 31–32, 33–37, 38–42, 43–48). We should find that the above material helps us form a clear understanding of these passages. When all things are considered, this formula – “you have heard that it was said to those of old…but I say to you…” – is always a straight forward contrast between Judaism and Christianity. Here are the important points of the word formula itself.
- Jesus is always making some type of contrast because He always uses the conjunction “but” in the formula.
- What was “said to those of old…” refers to the law of Moses; This is what Moses said to Israel in the giving of God’s law. It refers to the religion of Judaism.
- Jesus saying, “But I say to you…” refers to His sayings and commandments, which form the practice of Christianity.
By use of this formula Jesus is able to show some of the differences between the practice of these two religions. Again, this serves the dispensational purpose of Matthew’s gospel. A new dispensation would have the practice of a new religion. This word formula helps the spiritual mind to see the transition going on between the two dispensations.
Some would protest that Jesus is simply correcting the flaws which attached themselves to the practice of Judaism, accumulated over years and years of spurious teachings from the scribes and Pharisees. They would argue that what Jesus is saying in the second half of the formula is really what Moses said and actually meant, and that the sayings in the first half of each use are the teachings of uninspired rabbis. They would say that all Jesus is doing is returning to the original intent of the law, a cleaned-up form of Judaism. But a closer analysis of some of the examples prove this assumption to be wrong. When Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” He is directly quoting Moses and the law (Matt. 5:38). It will help us by viewing the original passage in Leviticus.
Leviticus 24:15–22 (NKJV)
15 “Then you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. 16 And whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him, the stranger as well as him who is born in the land. When he blasphemes the name of the Lord, he shall be put to death.
17 ‘Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death. 18 Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, animal for animal.
19 ‘If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him— 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him. 21 And whoever kills an animal shall restore it; but whoever kills a man shall be put to death. 22 You shall have the same law for the stranger and for one from your own country; for I am the Lord your God.’”
The judgement of God is contained in Judaism, because it is the law of God. We can see this judgment in the above passage. It allows us to better comprehend the justice inherent in the practice of the law and Judaism. The law, as given to Israel, was always the perfect measure of human responsibility (duty) before a holy and just God; it was the perfect standard of human righteousness. You can practically see the measuring of justice going on in this passage. But the Lord’s quote from Leviticus in Matthew’s Sermon is in the first half of His word formula (Matt. 5:38) – that means it is a practice of the law, in Judaism, that he will not allow to take place as part of Christianity. Instead He instructs Christians to do the following.
“But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. 41 And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.” (Matt. 5:39–42)
Where the practice of Judaism always provided the equal measure of justice in all circumstances, in contrast to this, Christianity is a religion of not (ever) resisting evil. The Lord’s words couldn’t be plainer and more direct. Now this passage should have a broad application in the lives of every true Christian, impressing a specific form of behavior when personally facing such circumstances in this world. In truth, this is the proper practice of Christianity for believers in the time of the Christian dispensation.238 Yet, how difficult is it to find evidence of this kind of behavior in the lives of professing Christians? Seeing the truth of the passage – that these are Jesus’ words, and His words are to be followed as the proper practice of Christianity – is a humbling reality check for every believer. Then the Spirit would have us turn to view Christendom. The general failure of the corporate body given responsibility for the testimony of God and the name of Jesus Christ during the present dispensation is clear.
238 [The question as to which dispensation the Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount applies, is easily answered from the above passage. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is from Moses and Judaism. It was applicable for Jewish practice during the Jewish dispensation. It will again be applicable for the Jews in the future millennial dispensation, their new covenant with God will have His law written on their minds and hearts. In contrast, the Lord’s teaching is only applicable for Christians living on the earth during the Christian dispensation.]
Matthew 5:43–48 (NKJV)
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? 48 Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
This example is more an extension of the first one we viewed above. In the world, generally speaking, there are two categories of people: those who were your neighbors and those who were your enemies. The law taught the Jews to love their neighbors as they love themselves, and to hate their enemies. But this would change for Christians and Christianity. Hearing the Lord’s words and doing them meant that believers would love their enemies and bless them, doing good to anyone who hates them. They are told to even pray for those who in anyway mistreat them. This simply is a major change from Judaism and the law.
How about Christian love for other believers? This is also new. Where the law speaks of self-love, Christianity speaks of self-sacrificing love for the brethren.
John 13:34–35 (NKJV)
34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
John 15:12–13 (NKJV)
12 “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”
These are the words of Jesus. He says it is a new commandment. That means it is not the commandment that you find in the law of Moses. Judaism never speaks of the self-sacrificing love that Jesus showed for all believers. The law never requires this type of commitment or level of love, it never demands self-sacrifice. Love your neighbor as yourself – that which is demanded by the law – is a carnal type of love. It is selfish and fleshly, for you are always taught to think of yourself first and your own wellbeing. But Christian love for the brethren is self-sacrificing. It is love in which you never think of self or your own good.
Here is the importance. These word-structures used by the Lord clearly point out differences between Judaism and Christianity, between the ending Jewish dispensation and the soon to begin Christian dispensation. It needs to be recognized that Christian love is a level of responsibility far beyond that which is presented in the law. The Lord’s new commandment for Christianity isn’t the same as what Moses spoke of old. If it is taught that the law still is the standard of Christian love and practice, there can’t help but be a dimming of the light Christians are to present in testimony before the world.
There are six examples of the Lord using this teaching formula in Matthew’s Sermon. Each one sets a higher level of responsibility for the Christian than that which is required of the Jews by the corresponding teaching found in their law. The examples either go in an opposite direction from the law, or go in the same direction, but far beyond what the law requires (Matt. 5:21–22, 5:27–28 and 5:31–32 are examples of the later). In every case Jesus makes a change so that the practice of Christianity is distinctly different from Judaism.
In a latter chapter of Matthew’s gospel there is one more example of the use of this formula. It involves a more detailed and fuller explanation of the same thing the Lord teaches about divorce in the Sermon (5:31–32).
Matthew 19:3-9 (NKJV)
3 The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
4 And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”
8 He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
The same pattern found so often in the Sermon on the Mount is present in this passage – Moses says such and such, but Jesus says something different. But the details of the explanation are worth a closer consideration. What God allowed the Jews to do under the law was to divorce their wives for any reason, as long as they gave them a certificate of divorce. This was different from what God commanded when He first created Adam and Eve. In this case, the law of Moses represented an allowance God permitted that was different from His original command concerning marriage. And this exception stood for any married male Jew the entire time of the Jewish dispensation.
Verse eight is interesting because it explains the reason why God lowered the standard under the law and the time of the Jewish dispensation – man’s utter depravity (the hardness of their hearts, speaking of the Jews, God’s chosen people). The Jewish dispensation was a time when God tested fallen man by giving the law to His chosen people. It was the primary purpose of the dispensation. But God knew the Jews were sinners in Adam by nature (Eph. 2:2–3). In order to avoid outright rebellion and chaos early in the dispensation, when God gave Israel the law, He compromised in this area by allowing certificates of divorce.
But marriage and divorce would be very different in the Christian dispensation. The parameters would return to what God originally intended for man. Not that man wasn’t still depraved. The Jewish dispensation proved that the whole world, the entire human race from Adam, was in this state (Rom. 3:9–20). But Christianity is very different. The redemption that Christians freely receive from God creates a new person in a new life – a life in resurrection power.239 This is more than justification from sins. There is available to every believer real deliverance from the power and influence of our enemies – from Satan, the world, and sin in the flesh. In all cases, as sons of God,240 Christians have a higher level of responsibility in their walk than ever existed with the Jews in the Jewish dispensation (Gal. 3:26, Matt. 5:9, 45). All these examples clearly show this.
239 [The true Christian is a new creation in Christ Jesus. This is nothing short of a new life, a new existence (2 Cor. 5:17). This is part of the reason why Christianity and the Christian dispensation is new and different from Judaism and the former Jewish dispensation]
240 [It is good to remind the reader that responsibility (duty) is a product of relationship. The Christian has entered into a relationship with God which didn’t exist for anyone in the time of the Jewish dispensation. A believer is born of God and now a son of God in Christ Jesus. Responsibility is characteristic of the existing relationship. Can anyone doubt that the new Christian relationship is the highest relationship which now exists between the Creator and the creature? In turn, it involves the highest and most perfect form of responsibility (that which was demonstrated by Jesus as a Man obedient to God. Christians, day by day, from glory to glory, should be conformed into His image and more and more act like Him (1 John 2:3–6)]
Few realize how much Christian character there is in Mathew’s Sermon on the Mount. If we fail to recognize these things, then we miss the evidences of the Spirit’s transitional purpose in writing. Below are some helpful observations:
- The “kingdom of heaven” phrase is used six times in the Sermon. As we have shown, it is a phrase which distinctly refers to the approaching Christian dispensation.
- God is referred to as “Father” seventeen times in the Sermon, Jesus saying either My Father or your Father. The revelation of God as the Father of Christians, who are now born of God and sons of God in Jesus Christ, simply is a Christian truth and revelation. It reveals the new relationship believers have with God, and certainly gives hints as to the character of this relationship.241
241 [Certain aspects of the new Christian relationship of sons with God as their Father are discussed in the Sermon. Matt. 5:45–48 instructs Christians to imitate their heavenly Father in their behavior towards evil. It is the simple thought of children seeing their parents as models of behavior and emulating them as children are prone to do – this is taught by the Lord here, but it is found in other places in the New Testament (Eph. 5:1–2, 8, 1 John 2:6). Then Matt. 6:25–34 speaks of the Father’s continuous care for His children, which Christians should trust in as part of the relationship. He knows what we need before we ask Him (Matt. 6:8). Also, the word “reward” is used nine different times in the Sermon, many of which refer to how the Father will reward His children (Matt. 6:4, 6, 18, etc.). The revelation of the Father and the various aspects of the Christian’s relationship with Him is a big portion of Matthew’s Sermon and is part of the evidence proving the dispensational purpose of this gospel]
- Twelve of the seventeen times Father is used in reference to God in the Sermon, a geographical location is made known – “Father in heaven” or “heavenly Father” or “who is in the secret place.” This brings together the two above points and shows a decidedly Christian character. Our calling and citizenship are in heaven; we will be taken to the Father’s house in heaven; we will shine forth as the sun in our Father’s kingdom in the heavens (Matt. 13:43).
- The first sixteen verses of Matthew’s Sermon are the enunciation of the principles of the kingdom of heaven that was preached as at hand (Matt. 4:17, 5:2–16). They define the character and responsibility of professing Christians during the Christian dispensation. True Christians are the sons of God (5:9) and the sons of the Father (5:45) referred to in the Sermon. Only Christians are persecuted for “righteousness sake” or for “Christ’s sake” (5:10–12).242
242 [There is an important contrast made here between Judaism and Christianity. If Israel was faithful to God and obedient in keeping His law and covenant, they could always expect prosperity and blessing. The Jews were never taught to expect to “suffer for righteousness sake.” Israel suffered for their unrighteousness and rebellion against God. However, Christianity is different from this. The Christian is to expect to suffer for doing right, for righteousness sake. And where is the believer’s reward? – in heaven, which would be in the next dispensation. The faithful and godly Christian is not to expect prosperity and physical blessing on this earth, during the time of the Christian dispensation. And only Christians can possibly be reviled and persecuted for Christ’s sake]
- 6:19–24 teaches the proper Christian view of money and material things. This is another pointed contrast between Judaism and Christianity. Under the law, Jews were never taught to lay up “treasures in heaven.” Their blessing was physical and upon the earth. Their treasures were a sign of God’s favor upon them for their godliness. But again, Christianity is very different from this. The believer’s portion in this world and during this dispensation is to suffer with Christ, who suffered Himself when He was in the world (Rom. 8:17–18). When Jesus walked the earth, He did not live as a king, although He was King of kings. He walked as a servant. Believers are to walk as He walked – He is the one we follow and emulate (1 John 2:6). Our reward is in heaven (Matt. 5:11–12, 6:1).243
243 [The word “heaven” is used twenty-one times in Matthew’s Sermon. It is used seventy-six times in His gospel – far more than in any other book of the Bible]
- 6:25–34 is Christian teaching concerning an aspect of “walking by faith” in this world. The mysteries of the kingdom of heaven are all the matters of faith in the hopes and practices of the Christian religion. Faith is always about things unseen (Heb. 11:1, 2 Cor. 4:18). The believer’s trust in an unseen heavenly Father taking care of His precious children is the type of life in this world which honors God and pleases Him (Heb. 11:6).
The Sermon on the Mount is a general explanation of Christian behavior and practice. The whole message speaks only of principles to be followed, responsibilities to be carried out, rewards to be gained, by those who profess to be in the kingdom of heaven. It is Christian doctrine. It is discipleship training. The sermon never deals with the redemption of mankind. It is not the evangelical Christian gospel being shared. Rather, it is instruction given to all those who eventually would profess to being in a relationship with God as their Father. It is the simple practical teachings concerning the principles and behavior associated with the new form the kingdom of God takes in the Christian dispensation. And it serves the internal purpose of dispensational transition in this book. It is the reason why the Spirit of God arranged Matthew’s gospel to be the first book of the New Testament writings.