When John the Baptist presented Jesus as the Messiah, the hope of a renewed national greatness revived. Thoughts of a conqueror like Judas Maccabees who threw off the yoke of the Seleucid Empire stirred the energies of Jewish nationalism as they considered their current plight under the iron fist of Rome. As large crowds began to gather around this new teacher and they saw the demonstration of His power through healing the sick, the sense of anticipation began to grow.
And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people. (24) Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them. (25) Great multitudes followed Him—from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan. Matthew 4:23-25 (NKJV)
After Jesus had ordained the twelve disciples, Jesus went with them to the seaside. The crowds began to gather, some to listen and others to be healed. As the crowd grew larger Jesus led them back up the mountainside where He began to speak. The blessings that poured forth from His lips were unlike anything that humanity had heard. He began His discourse with statements such as:
Blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful and blessed are the peacemakers. Matthew 5:5,7,9. Rather than heap praise upon valiant men who skilfully wield their swords for the cause of truth, He spoke blessing upon those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake and who endure being reviled and mistreated for His sake. Matthew 5:10,11. He spoke not the words of an avenging General rallying his troops for war, but rather the meekness, gentleness, and love of His Father that He desired to be seen in all of His followers.
These words spoken by Christ were not only taught by Him but lived out in every detail of His earthly life. His compassion, mercy, and patience for all men were ever on display. At the close of His ministry His patience under mockery, beating and death revealed not one thread of threat, retaliation, or revenge. What He taught that day revealed exactly who He was and as the representative of His Father, He revealed what God is like. It is vital to understand that Jesus was not telling us to do something that He does not do Himself, that because He is divine He uses different rules for us than for Himself. No. It is because He is divine that He Himself lives exactly the way in which He spoke to us on that mountain.
The words of Jesus cut deep into Jewish pride and ambition, and as these words are universally spoken to all humanity they also cut deep into all human pride and ambition. We discover the truth that the goodness of God glimpsed by sinful man leads him to repentance and reveals to him the meaning of the opening words of Jesus in His sermon – blessed are the poor in spirit and blessed are they that mourn because of their selfish pride and ambition.
The Son of God cuts deeper and still deeper into the human problem as He continues speaking:
Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: (22) but I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire. Matthew 5:21-22 (RV)
Jesus is expanding the words that were given to Moses centuries earlier. He is not taking one jot or tittle from the law but rather magnifying it and making it glorious with light.
Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbour, and not bear sin because of him. (18) Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:17-18 (RV)
Who has not felt angry towards someone who mistreats us? Who has not had thoughts of getting even with those who may have belittled or humiliated us? Who has been able to completely avoid bearing a grudge against anyone at any time? Later the apostle John expanding on the words of Jesus penned these words:
Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. 1 John 3:15 (NKJV)
What kind of a kingdom is this that Jesus speaks of? Having hatred for someone means that you are a murderer worthy of death? What is the “hell of fire” or hell fire in Matthew 5:22 that Jesus speaks about in this regard? Ask Cain as he cried out in anguish – my iniquity is greater than can be forgiven! – Genesis 4:13 (Wycliffe). Ask Jesus as He hung upon the cross carrying the guilt of all human hatred, revenge, and selfishness; ask Him about the “hell of fire” that comes on those who live this way.
Has someone close to you really deeply hurt you? Have you felt anger towards them? Have you struggled to stop thinking about how much they have wounded you and how much you want to see them brought to justice? Isn’t this a living hell? Don’t such thoughts burn in our hearts? How then does the heart respond to thoughts in our minds about actually wishing a person was dead? How does the Spirit of Jesus, which sticks closer than a brother, feel when we entertain thoughts of wishing other people were dead? Maybe we know that wishing them dead is wrong and we simply wish never to see them again. Yet isn’t this simply different coloured fruit from the same tree? How does Jesus suffer in this hell fire when we allow such thoughts to rule us?
The words of Christ are a direct attack on the norms of how human beings relate to each other. The call to meekness, humility and patience in the face of abuse and mistreatment demands of its listener much more than he can give, and this is the intention. As Jesus says:
They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Mark 2:17
Jesus continues with razor precision in this kingly speech, to prepare human hearts to receive His grace. In one sentence He exposes the selfishness of every man:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: (28) But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28
Any man who is honest with himself knows that these words speak directly to the core of his problem and condemn him completely. Christ declares the problem to be self, that the individual's heart needs to be reformed. God aims to implant a new principle in man, a principle he does not have and cannot have of himself. God offers us the faith of Christ, "the kingdom of heaven within you," which once received then "all things become new." The man of faith's life and actions are simply an expression of that principle, the blessings of which begin inwardly and then flow outward to those around him, no matter what government or culture he is in. The world thinks that God would act from the outside first and work inward. Man thinks that God would reform the world first, overthrowing the wicked and thereby establishing a nation of the worthy. But the plan of beginning at the outside and trying to work inward, has always failed and always will fail. Once again what Jesus calls for is impossible for man, but with God and His grace in Christ all things are possible.
If there could be anyone who believes in his heart that he has never done anything wrong, the following words from Jesus shatter that possibility except through recognition of sinfulness and acceptance of the cross.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: (39) But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (40) And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. (41) And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. (42) Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. (43) Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. (44) But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; (45) That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. (46) For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? (47) And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? (48) Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. Matthew 5:38-48
Have you ever had someone rush upon you completely unprovoked and strike you? Jesus says turn the other cheek. The list of things called for here are completely out of the realm of human possibility to be maintained throughout the life of a person, and yet this is what Jesus reveals to us as the credentials of His kingdom. How can it be possible to love your enemies? Love those who want to kill you? Love those who want to harm you and love those who constantly are seeking to do you hurt? Jesus asks us to love them? For what purpose?
“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”
Did you catch that? If you are meek, merciful, gentle and patient and you love your enemies then you reveal that you are a child of your heavenly Father. What does that mean? It means that this is what the Father is like! If He makes the sun to shine on the evil and the good, then as His children we will shine our love on the evil and the good because this is what our heavenly Father is like. This is the greatest of sermons ever preached because it speaks of the greatest most wonderful Being existing in the universe, our heavenly Father. He is being revealed to us through our most precious Saviour, the Son of the Living God, who knows exactly what He is like. There is no other Being in the entire universe who knows what the Father is like and in this sermon we see the Father’s character revealed to us.
The sealing point of this reality is in the final words of chapter five of Matthew.
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. Matthew 5:48
This proves to us that everything Jesus has spoken in this sermon is a revelation of His character of love. These words speak to us about how our Father deals with situations. The book of Luke sums up the word perfection which Matthew uses in this way:
Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Luke 6:36
So perfection is found in mercy. The question which must be asked is: If God loves His enemies and revealed to us through His Son that He is willing to lay down His life for those who hate Him, then why does the Bible appear to teach that God hates His enemies with a perfect hatred and in the heat of His anger He is willing, for the sake of saving the righteous, to obliterate the wicked by calling down fire and brimstone upon them, just to watch them die in shrieks of terrified agony?
This is the question that we must turn to next as there are several stories in the Old Testament which seem to show that God is willing to love His enemies to a point, but then releases all of His built up anger in a fiery burst that blasts them from the face of the earth. Some suggest this is a necessary reminder that we should not trifle with God and that even He has limits that if we cross, we will pay with our very lives in the most excruciating manner. How we reconcile the perfection of the Father about which Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount with the stories we read in the Old Testament is the object of the rest of this book. For most people there is a giant disconnect between Jesus in the Gospels and God in the Old Testament, yet strangely enough it was Moses who was asked to write those words in Leviticus to love your neighbour and not hold any grudges against him.
This same disconnect was also there for those who heard Jesus 2000 years ago. For those who believed that the kingdom Jesus described is that of God and represented His character, Jesus’s words and ministry were a savour of life unto life. For those who could not let go of their ambitions in this world and believed that Jesus didn't accurately portray the character of God, nor of how God's kingdom should be, the seeds were there to hate Jesus because to them He was an imposter. They had never known the God that Jesus described. Therefore they could not see Jesus as the Son of the God that they worshipped. If what Jesus said was true, then either they had never known the true God or their God had changed His ways.
Is God true to His word when He says:
For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed. Malachi 3:6
Is the God of the Gospels the same as the God of Moses, Abraham and Noah? Is Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever? Hebrews 13:8. These are the questions that demand a verdict. In the mean-time, let us rejoice in the revelation of the Father that Jesus gave to us on that mountainside and be encouraged that with Christ we can not only love our friends but also our enemies.