Do we need to follow rules in order for God to accept us?
If not, do the rules matter at all?
Didn’t Jesus fight back against the rules and traditions of His day?
If the rules are important, which ones are most important? What happens to those who disobey?
It is popular today for people to think of Jesus as a rebel, going against the religious establishment. He is often pictured as fighting against the religious leaders and standing His ground against the ruling Romans.
Even in Jesus’ day, people expected that He was against the Law. He did not show respect for the religious leaders, nor their large set of traditions. Surely he must be trying to turn people from the Law, wasn’t he?
It is important to remember that Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount to His disciples (see here). Jesus started by showing that being a true disciple is the way to true blessings and happiness (see here). He then began to teach about the Law, and what it means to keep the rules in God’s sight.
Matthew 5:17-20 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The famous opening to the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, starts with this sentence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The pursuit of Happiness.
What makes you happy?
What does it mean to be happy?
How do you define happiness?
If we honestly answer this question for ourselves, we often expect to find happiness at the end of our pursuits. The businessman expects to find it at the next promotion or closed deal. The athlete looks for it after the next win. The concerned parents look for happiness in their “successful” children. The romantics look for happiness in the man or woman of their dreams.
We find temporary happiness at the top of the mountain that we are climbing. But like the old song about the bear that went over the mountain, all we really see is another mountain. The happiness of success, of reaching your goals is temporary.
Common descriptions of a happy person today would include adjectives such as: smart, successful, wealthy, winning, powerful, proud, self-reliant, trouble-free, and able to get everything he wants.
The descriptions of a happy person in the first century would be very similar. The Greeks valued the wise and the educated. The Romans valued the powerful and the ruthless. The Jews valued the devout and the pious.
But Jesus gave a completely different view of the happy person. The happy person was not the powerful, the successful, the educated, nor the pious one. The happy person was low enough to enter God’s kingdom.
Jesus used a word for “happy” which has a much deeper meaning than the fleeting good feelings that we may have. The true happiness gives you joy and hope, even through terrible circumstances. This word is often translated as “joyful” or “blessed”.
“‘Blessed’ implied an inner satisfaction and sufficiency that did not depend on outward circumstances for happiness.” – Warren Wiersbe 5
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The happy person is not the wealthy or the wise one, but the one who recognizes that they have nothing that they can give to God! When you come to God, you don’t start on your knees, you start by crawling on the ground! It is only when you realize that you are totally destitute that you can come to Him. Happy are those who recognize their absolute, total need for Him, for these are the ones who are in His kingdom!
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
The happy person is not the one who is laughing, but the one who is mourning. We have nothing to offer God, and our very nature is to rebel against Him and disobey Him. The truly happy person is the one who is brought to grief over his failure to please God, for he will be comforted. It is when you mourn over your disobedience that you can come to God for forgiveness, and He will comfort you.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
The happy person is not the assertive and the proud, but the one who is humble and restrains himself. It is the one who responds with humility — even when pushed around — that is part of God’s kingdom. The meek and the humble are looked down upon in our culture, but these are the ones who will rule over the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
The happy person is not the one who is content, but the one who is starving for justice and an upright life. The members of God’s kingdom earnestly desire to see right done in the world. Those who need to see righteousness like this will be brought to God Himself — the true source of everything right and good in the world!
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
The happy person is not the one who is served, but the one who helps others who are in need. The members of God’s kingdom will show kindness to those in need, even when they are getting what they deserve. For it is those who are showing mercy who realize how much mercy God has given to us! We were the destitute, the mourning, and the humbled!
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
The happy person is not the one who follows after life’s pleasures, but the one who pursues God’s glory. This is the one who keeps his heart pure and set apart for God. God shows mercy to those who have come to Him in humility and grief, and he cleanses their hearts and makes them pure. These are the ones who can truly know God!
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
The happy person is not the winner, but the one who negotiates peace. This is the one who works through interpersonal conflicts in order to bring unity among others. But this is also the one who goes to the lost ones who have rebelled against God, and shows them that they need to repent and turn to Him. The peacemakers are the ones who work for peace between others, and peace with God. When we negotiate peace, we are representing God Himself as His sons. Not simply children of God, but sons of God, bearing His image and authority.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others 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 they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Finally, the happy person is not the one who is free from trouble, but the one who is harassed for the sake of Jesus Christ. We identify that we are part of the kingdom of heaven when we are persecuted and harassed for His sake. We are also in great company, including all of the great prophets of old, and we will have a great reward in heaven!
This is the key to ultimate happiness. We will go through poverty, mourning, humility, and persecution, but we have the ultimate joy of knowing that we will be with Jesus Christ in His kingdom!
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. – Philippians 2:14-15
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. – 1 Peter 2:9
Matthew’s gospel account tells how Jesus traveled throughout the region — preaching, teaching, and working miracles (see here). As His fame grew, people came to Him from across Galilee and the surrounding regions. But Jesus’ message was the same: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17).
As the crowds began to grow, Jesus went up a mountain and began to teach His disciples:
Matthew 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…
Jesus had travelled throughout the countryside, preaching that the kingdom is at hand. He now took his disciples aside and laid out what it means to be a citizen of the kingdom.
Thus begins the first of many great discourses in Matthew’s gospel account. It is also one of the longest recorded sermons in Scripture, covering three chapters in Matthew (Matthew 5-7, with parallels in Luke 6:17-49). This teaching by Jesus contains some of the most well known parts of all scripture, and some of His most beloved quotes. Because of the location where Jesus taught, it has been traditionally known as the “Sermon on the Mount”.
Many parts of the Sermon on the Mount are well known in our culture, even by those who have never read the Bible. It opens with the famous series of beatitudes, where Jesus taught about the blessings of those who follow Him, even though they are poor, hungry, and weeping. Jesus urged his followers to be salt and light to the outside world, and He set a much higher standard than was ever given in the Old Testament law.
He criticized religious hypocrisy and indifference, showing that it is meaningless to give God what is no value to you, and the danger of being religious only for the praise of other people. He showed that the treasure in heaven is much more valuable and permanent than anything you can gain here on earth. He taught how to properly judge others, being mindful of your own failures. Yet He also gave comfort for when we doubt if God is caring about us, or when we doubt if He is watching over for us. We are reminded that we are much more valuable in God’s sight than all of the intricate design of His own creation!
And finally, He warned His listeners to not only hear Him, but to also do what He says. The one who hears His words and follows them is the wise man who built his house upon a rock, but the one who ignores His teaching is the foolish man who built his house upon the sand, and everything he has will be destroyed.
The Scripture says that when Jesus was finished, all the people were astonished at the way he spoke. English translation does not put that strongly enough. They were stunned! They were flabbergasted!
Matthew 7:28-29 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
It was very common for the rabbis of Jesus’ day to stand up and give lectures. They would call upon the authority of a great rabbi from years before, who would call upon the authority of their previous rabbis. But Jesus did not quote the authority of previous teachers, he relied on His own authority. In Matthew 5, He repeats the saying, “you have heard it said … but I say …“ (Matthew 5:17-48). He was not conforming or enhancing the current Jewish system of religion. He was following the law, but making it completely different, bringing it into something new.
Theologians have debated over how we should apply the Sermon on the Mount in our day. It does not contain instructions for how to have eternal life, and at a quick glance, it appears to be all about our works. Much of the sermon is directed toward our attitudes and our actions. The Sermon on the Mount is not how to gain entrance into God’s kingdom, it is how His citizens should live, now that we are in His kingdom. There are some important things to remember about the Sermon on the Mount:
First, Jesus was speaking to his disciples, who have already repented and trusted in Him. The disciples were already following Him, but needed instructions for how to live as citizens of His kingdom. Therefore, it would be wrong to view the Sermon on the Mount as the entrance requirements for how to get into God’s kingdom. This would also contradict other Scripture, which clearly states that we are saved by grace, not by good works (Romans 4:5, Titus 3:4-7, Ephesians 2:8-9). We do not follow God’s law to become His children, we follow God’s law because we are His children!
Also, instead of discarding the Old Testament law, Jesus raised its expectations up to a higher level. It is popular today to believe that Jesus came to put aside any type of law keeping. But Jesus did not come to take away the law of Moses, He came to fulfill the law. In this sermon, Jesus showed that the letter of the law is not nearly as important as the spirit of the law. You may pride yourself on never committing murder or adultery, but you are just as guilty if you harbor hatred or lustful thoughts.
“This sermon is not a ‘constitution’ for the kingdom God will one day establish on earth. The Sermon on the Mount applies to life today and describes the kind of godly character we should have as believers in this world.” – Warren Wiersbe 2