In the first post of this series, I talked about how Jesus’ focus in the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM) is to cast a vision of what His kingdom looks like, and that the picture He paints is of an alternative community. He expects His disciples to live together as a body of believers whose lives are governed by principles that are completely at odds with the way the world operates.
A good preliminary question, before looking closely at what Jesus has to say in the SOTM is ”Who is this Jesus, anyway?” It is important for us to remember that we have the SOTM in the context of the Gospel of Matthew, and that Matthew didn’t just begin His gospel with Jesus giving a sermon. Instead, Matthew takes pains throughout the first four chapters to tell us who this preacher is, and why his readers should care about what He has to say.
Matthew 1 begins with the genealogy of Jesus, which reinforces that Jesus is a son of Abraham, through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed, and also a son of David, the promised King for whom God’s people had been waiting. The end of Matthew 1 tells of the conception and birth of Jesus, and the angel tells Joseph that Jesus will be called “Immanuel” which means “God with us.” Jesus’ task is to show us what God is like and to represent His saving presence in a troubled world.
Matthew 2 relates the fear that one king (Herod) has of another (Jesus). Herod is a representative of the Roman Empire, a defender of the political status quo, and he is terrified when the Wise Men from the east say they have come to worship the new King who has been born. Herod ruthlessly sets out to eliminate his rival, trying to trick the Wise Men into serving as his spies, and then ultimately having all the baby boys in the area of Bethlehem put to death.
In Matthew 3, John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus, confronting those who will oppose Him (Pharisees and Sadducees), and claiming that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, emphasizing the power of the King to both save and also judge. Jesus is then baptized, and God speaks from heaven, confirming who Jesus is and affirming His mission: He is God with us.
Matthew 4 begins with Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by the devil. Satan offers Jesus power, indeed, authority over all the kingdoms of the world, but Jesus is a King over a different kind of kingdom, and rejects Satan’s offers. In Matthew 4.12, we have the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry in Galilee. Matthew portrays this as a fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah, which states, “the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (4.16). Again, Jesus is portrayed as the saving presence of God: He is the Light who dispels the darkness, and He calls people to repentance because the kingdom of heaven is at hand (4.17). The appearance of that kingdom involves the enlistment of those who would be citizens of it (4.18-22). Jesus calls two sets of brothers (Peter & Andrew, James & John) to follow Him, in the process giving them a new identity, new mission, and new community to whom they belong. Simply put, God’s kingdom changes everything; we are not able to be a part of it and continue to live our lives as if nothing is different. Everything is different. The appearance of the kingdom of heaven also means teaching and preaching, healing the sick, and helping the oppressed (4.23-25). As shown by Jesus’ teaching, life in the kingdom is enlightening, but also challenging and demanding. As shown in Jesus’ healing, the kingdom confronts the suffering of the world and seeks to restore wholeness.
Finally, in the opening verse of the SOTM, we are told that Jesus “went up on the mountain.” This seems normal enough, but is actually a quotation from the Hebrew scriptures. Nine times in Exodus and Deuteronomy it is used of Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the revelation of God’s will, and five times it is used in reference to Mount Zion and the coming age when people will go up to where God is and learn His ways. So Matthew is clueing us in that this preacher has the authority to reveal God’s ultimate will for the world.
So putting all of this together, who is this Preacher who delivers the Sermon on the Mount? Who is this Jesus?
Jesus is the Son of Abraham, the Blesser of all nations; He is the Davidic King; He is God with us, the embodiment of God’s saving presence; He is a threat to Herod and the rulers of this world; He is proclaimed by John; He is affirmed by God in His baptism; He resists Satan; He brings light to the dark places of men; He announces the kingdom of heaven; He enlists disciples to be citizens of that kingdom; He preaches about that kingdom; He heals the sick as evidence of what His kingdom is like; He is the new Moses who reveals God’s ultimate will to men and women.
This Jesus is someone to whom we should listen.