Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is one of the most challenging and misunderstood teachings of Jesus. The full sermon is outlined well in Mathew, chapter 5. It is challenging because it says things like if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; if you even look at a woman lustfully you have already sinned without having to commit adultery.
These are hard teachings and an ideal that no man can ever attain. So the question that arises is “why would Jesus give such a hard teaching that he knows very well no man can adhere to?”
The answer lies in the passage itself. Let us look at it in some detail. After giving the attitudes that we as believers should aspire to such as meekness, poverty of spirit, hunger and thirst for righteousness, purity of heart, peace-seeking and so forth and their attached blessings, or the “beatitudes” as they are often called, Jesus says something very revealing:
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” Matthew 5:17 (KJV)
That is the key to understanding the passage. Jesus came to fulfil the law. What follows is examples of him fulfilling the law. He goes on to say that we need to aim for a righteousness that goes beyond what was the accepted standard at the time of the Pharisees and scribes, who probably followed the law most diligently at the time, though not perfectly:
“For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:20 (KJV)
In other words, unless our righteousness is beyond the law, we cannot be righteousness enough for the Kingdom of Heaven. But how can one be righteous beyond what the law prescribed? What follows is Jesus explaining exactly that:
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” Matthew 5:21-22 (KJV)
Pay attention to how Jesus describes what is the prevailing situation versus what he thinks should be:
YE HAVE HEARD IT WAS SAID BY THEM OF OLD TIME (i.e. according to the law or according to the legal standard)…BUT I SAY UNTO YOU (i.e. according to me or according to my standard)
Jesus is saying that the law says this, but I say that, the law has a certain standard but I have an even tougher standard. What Jesus was saying whenever he said “I say unto you” was tougher than what the law prescribed. It was an ideal that was beyond what the law required.
First we have to ask: what authority did Jesus have to say the law was not enough or to bring up things that go beyond the law. The Jews treasured the law as passed down by Moses and any man that questions it was questioning God and Moses. It was thus unfathomable to question it. It is recorded in Acts the word of Moses himself saying of Jesus:
“This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear. Acts 7:37 (KJV)
The people that were present to hear the words of Jesus on the mount were astonished at his teaching “For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes (Mathew 7:29).”
Thus, Jesus had the authority to declare these things about the law, as it had been given him of God. He had the authority to show a better way than the law. But he did not have the authority to break the law. He himself was still subject to the law.
Secondly, who could achieve things beyond what the law required, who could be so pure as to never think a lustful thought and never sin? Well, the only man who lived a pure life before God and satisfied God enough to be a sacrificial lamb without blemish – JESUS HIMSELF.
Jesus was saying the law demands this, but I have gone beyond that. Yet, he was not saying so to be boastful but rather to illustrate an important point; which is that there is a more perfect way than the law, a better way than the law. This way was illustrated by Jesus’ own pure life.
This point is emphasised by Paul in Romans:
“For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh” Romans 8:3 (KJV)
The law could never destroy or get rid of sin, but Jesus did. What Jesus was saying then was that “This is the law and I have fulfilled it, not only by doing everything the law requires of me, but by going beyond it and showing you a more perfect way.”
In Hebrews, Paul goes on to say that the law was but a shadow of the things to come:
“For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.” Hebrews 10:1 (KJV)
So the law was the shadow, and Jesus was the image, or the “real deal”. That is why he was the fulfilment of the law.
Hence he could even say in ending that passage “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:48
We know that of ourselves, perfection is impossible in our current “body of sin”. But in him, through Christ’s righteousness and free gift of salvation, we are perfect, because when we accept him as our Lord and Saviour the father does not see us with our flaws, but sees Christ in his perfection in us.
In due time, when all shall be revealed, we shall put on perfection, when our bodies will be made anew and the sinful nature permanently removed from us.