Winter 2001

Religion and Spirituality

The Gospels for the 21st Century, Part 5

A Platform of Truth

David Hulme

At the heart of one of the most famous oratories of all time lie enduring values and principles that can lift us out of today’s maze of moral confusion.

The Sea of Galilee, calm and sun-speckled in the morning light, is a place of great peace and beauty, but it’s also subject to dangerous and fast-moving storms. Then the surrounding hills echo with the sound of nature’s firecrackers, and sudden squalls obscure the far shore.

But it’s not just the roll of thunder that’s been heard in these hills for centuries. The noise of warfare, the bruit of battle, has been here too. On the sea’s eastern side is the beginning of the Golan Heights, site of modern Israel’s confrontation with her Arab neighbor Syria. And before that, Palestine saw battles with the Turks and the Byzantines and the Crusaders. In the first century of the Christian era, the Romans subdued the Golan settlement of Gamla in a terrible siege following a Jewish uprising against the emperor’s rule.

Ironically, on the western side of the sea, on the uplands above Capernaum, is the traditional site of one of the world’s best-known speeches. It contains an appeal to reconciliation in this longtime arena of war: “Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Jesus of Nazareth.

Somewhere in this area, out in the open, surrounded by His disciples, Jesus delivered what has come to be universally known as the Sermon on the Mount, recognized as the single most important discourse on Christian law and living. It’s certainly one of the most powerful pieces of moral teaching ever given and remains to this day authoritative and unrivaled in its implications for everyday human behavior. But although the message has provided some of the foundational elements in Western civilization’s value system, it is nonetheless little understood and far less practiced.

In Part Four of this series, we examined the first section of this most famous of sermons, a passage of Scripture referred to as the beatitudes, or blessings. Here Christ summarized a number of traits that assure a right and beneficial relationship with God. But how do such Christian characteristics play out in the world around? Surely, as some have said, they are far too idealistic—impossible words for our times. What exactly did Jesus intend?

Making a Difference 

In Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus moved on from the beatitudes to a general description of the everyday, practical behavior of true Christians. “You are the salt of the earth,” He said to His disciples (Matthew 5:13).

Like salt’s effect on food, Christians are to enhance their social setting. 

This much-quoted verse points to the effect that the followers of Jesus are to have in their communities. They should be valuable participants, utilizing their abilities and character traits to the full. They should be evident for their community involvement. Like salt’s effect on food, Christians are to enhance their social setting.

But then Jesus warned, “If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”

Salt was a valuable commodity in Jesus’ time. But it could lose its usefulness. And like salt that has lost its characteristic saltiness, Jesus said, disciples without visible good works are useless. Tasteless salt is thrown away; that shouldn’t be the fate of Christ’s followers.

Next, in three parallel statements to encourage action, Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” Then He said, “A city on a hill cannot be hidden,” and finally, “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl” (verses 14–15).

These references to things that give out light and are seen tell us that Christian action should be the same—it should be visible. An oil lamp in the first century was, as Jesus said, put on its stand to give light to everyone in the house.

The lesson became clear when Jesus added: “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (verse 16).

So the Christlike person should be observable by good works in the community. That is to say in anything—in any action that out of sincerity demonstrates the principles by which he or she lives. It isn’t just serving occasionally at a soup kitchen, or volunteering for community disaster relief, but it’s living every day by Jesus’ principles so that onlookers notice the difference. That means everyday Christianity, not a once-a-week show of allegiance. It’s a call for sincerity and truth in daily life.

What Jesus was saying flew in the face of the show of religion the Pharisees and religious leaders practiced. They claimed to observe the law of God and to be its teachers, but their own actions and interpretations were contradictory.

A Law for Life 

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pointed out next that His purpose was to uphold and magnify the law of God, not make it of less effect. He said, “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” (verse 17).

“The Law and the Prophets” comprises much of the Hebrew Scriptures—what Christians refer to as the Old Testament. Old Testament is an unfortunate term, because it privileges the New Testament in a way that can debase the value of the Scriptures that Jesus Christ Himself used to great effect in His teaching. 

The Old part of Old Testament is simply a reference to the covenant relationship God established with ancient Israel at Mt. Sinai, when the Ten Commandments were given.

The New part of the phrase New Testament is a reference to the new relationship offered through Jesus Christ to all humanity. That new relationship includes access to the Father of humankind, through the gift of the Spirit of God. But it’s a mistake to think of the Old Testament as redundant just because today we use the word old in describing it.

The Hebrew Scriptures were the basis of Jesus’ teaching. He expanded on them, showing their deeper spiritual implications. He clearly valued them. And He said, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (verse 18).

Jesus could not have been plainer about the centrality of the law of God in human life. 

There’s authority in this statement—and it’s unequivocal. Jesus could not have been plainer about the centrality of the law of God in human life.

Keeping the Law to the Letter 

In Jesus’ day, some of those who taught the law were Pharisees. If they were listening to the Sermon on the Mount, they heard a message that cut straight to the heart. On the other hand, if they would change, Jesus promised a significant future: “Whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven,” He said (verse 19).

Then, in a direct reference to the hypocrisy of some of the religious leadership, He added, “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (emphasis added). These Pharisees and teachers were not living up to the deeper spiritual implications of the law—they were observing the letter and not the spirit of the law.

By way of example, Jesus showed His listeners the difference between the letter and the spirit. Speaking of commonly understood teachings about murder, adultery, swearing oaths, the treatment of enemies, divorce, and retaliation, Jesus enlarged or magnified the implications of the law of God. Not only is the act of murder wrong, the attitude of anger and scorn behind it is also wrong. In such a frame of mind, a person cannot have a right relationship with God. First we must reconcile with our neighbor; only then will God hear us.

In the case of adultery, it’s not just the act that’s sinful, it’s the uncontrolled possessiveness prior to the act that Jesus signaled as equally wrong. He said, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

In principle, of course, this is not a statement limited to men. A married person of either sex can have sexual desire for someone other than his or her partner. The point is that such temptations must be resisted if sin is to be avoided.

Jesus was stressing that what goes on inside our heads is just as important as the act of sin, because thought precedes action. It’s at the level of conscious thought that sin begins. It ends in wrongful action.

The Divorce Debate 

What about divorce? In the first-century Jewish world, it was a contentious issue from a religious perspective. The Jewish teachers were split over the grounds for divorce. There were conservative and liberal views.

Some followed the teaching of the rabbi Shammai. He had said in an interpretation of Old Testament law that divorce was allowable in only one case—that of marital infidelity. He allowed no other reasons for such termination of marriage.

His opponent in the debate over divorce was the rabbi Hillel. He had died seven or eight years before Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. No doubt Hillel’s teaching was popular, because he allowed divorce for just about any reason. Anything about the woman that displeased the man was ground for divorce in Hillel’s opinion.

By His response, Jesus put Himself on the conservative side of the debate. His purpose, remember, was to show the deeper spiritual implications of the law. He was going to uphold and fulfill the law—to show how it could and should be kept. So with regard to divorce, He said: “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (verse 32).

The undiluted strength of the young rabbi’s teaching wasn’t easy to take. His habit of getting to the heart of things was at once refreshing and challenging. He was obviously cut from different cloth than the traditional teachers.

Continuing, Jesus said, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’” (verse 37). He disagreed with the idea that swearing by heaven or earth or Jerusalem or anything else was necessary to ensure the fulfillment of a personal promise. What He stressed was the simple honesty of keeping one’s word.

Going the Extra Mile 

Has anything struck you about Jesus’ teaching as we’ve looked at it? What is so impressive is His power to focus on the essential core of right human behavior.

The New Testament book of Hebrews teaches in chapter 4, verse 12, that “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”—a reason, perhaps, that many avoid it until there’s nowhere else to go.

Jesus said that the principle of “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” was superseded by the principle of willing submission. It was an extremely hard saying. This was teaching that went contrary to centuries of tradition.

Some of Jesus’ followers couldn’t deal with such pure teaching. “But I tell you,” He persisted, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:39–42).

Even enemies were included in this radical new way of thinking. The hatred of enemies was gone, replaced by love and concern for them.

We’re understandably impressed in the modern world by the extraordinary pacifist efforts of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King Jr. But their principles are found here in Jesus’ own words; He said, “I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (verses 44–45).

Like Father, Like Son 

Jesus had a great purpose in all of this moral teaching: it was to enable human beings to become Godlike. As Jesus said, summarizing: “Be [or become] perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (verse 48).

What Jesus taught was religious practice anchored in sincerity. 

It’s important to remember in reading through the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus was drawing a contrast between the practices of the religious authorities of His day and the reality of true religion. What Jesus taught was religious practice anchored in sincerity, wholeheartedness and a complete devotion to God—nothing less. He knew, of course, that He was challenging traditional teaching that had been compromised by politics and the corruptions of human nature.

When He spoke, His teaching was authoritative, penetrating and difficult to debate. At times He was radical; at others, reactionary. He reached forward with new teachings, and backward in support of long-established truths. He expanded the old principles with new applications.

And that’s where the difference in His teaching lay. He succeeded in stirring people to a recognition of enduring values.

How much are we amazed at His teaching? How much do we recognize the authority with which He spoke?

This Sermon on the Mount—the heart and core of Jesus’ moral and ethical teaching—was given early in His ministry as a platform of truth on which the early New Testament Church would develop. This was the basic teaching for the disciples in the first century.

Could it form the same basis for us in the 21st?

In Part Six we will continue our examination of this discourse on primary values.