The second temple Jews saw upholding Torah as the expression of wisdom and righteousness. But the issue is what this wisdom must be based on. Matthew places the Sermon on the Mount near the front of his gospel account because a primary objective of his is to show Jesus as the Messiah—the personification of God’s wisdom—God with us.. All of which is to say Jesus claims Himself to be the basis of wisdom. The Torah, then, is fulfilled in Christ.
Jesus ascended the mount to proclaim this perfect wisdom to His disciples, which of course includes you and me, as a clear nod to Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive the Law, or Elijah receiving instruction from God on the mountain. What we will hear from our Lord is counter-intuitive and contradictory to conventional wisdom. Of course it is, because it is wisdom of the Kingdom of God, not of the Kingdom of fallen humankind. Witherington sees Jesus’ wisdom statements for the new relationship God has with His image-bearers in His kingdom (B. Witherington, “Matthew” Smyth and Helwys, Macon, GA, (2006).) I agree as long as we understand this relationship as new in the sense of a restored relationship in Christ.
We will discover as we listen to Jesus, He is fulfilling the essential Law, not all that came to be the Torah. Many of the Laws of the old covenant were necessary for keeping some order in Israel coexisting in a violent, pagan world—that is, they were judicial laws. Such laws will vanish; others will be recast into the essential Law, which is what I believe to be the Ten Words (Ten Commandments). It is this essential law Jesus ultimately fulfills. And we will see what this means as the wisdom of Christ is unfolded before us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).
In verse 2 of chapter 5 we see what seems to be a peculiar description we might take as simply an archaic expression: “He opened His mouth and taught them saying….” But it isn’t. Matthew is contrasting here wisdom Christ taught through miracles and through His silence (e.g., before Pilate) with wisdom He is about speak to us. John Chrysostum in his homily on this passage of Matthew further explains that Matthew connects Jesus’ acts of healing with His verbal teaching to demonstrate God’s concern for both the spiritual and physical aspects of His creation (Chrysostom, Homily XV (Matt. V. 1,2), 1.). God is restoring all of creation, not just individuals.
Jesus now lays out the eight so-called beatitudes. Let’s step back again and view the magnificent forest and gradually hike our way in to examine these beatitudes in detail.
The Sermon on the Mount is the Kingdom ethos. It isn’t a new set of commandments, but the fulfillment of the old set of commandments—specifically, the Ten Words. The Law is to God’s kingdom as the skeleton is to the body, in that the Law provides the necessary infrastructure and shape for the Kingdom of God; the Law describes what right order (justice) looks like and must be because God who is holy created His kingdom for His good pleasure as a place to dwell with His image-bearers—and God does not change. I say this lest we might think the Law is a capricious thing, subject to change by an act of congress.
The law is a necessary but not sufficient foundation for the kingdom of God. If left alone, the skeleton remains nothing except a sculpted inanimate collection of minerals. The skeleton only comes alive when covered with flesh infused with living consciousness. In the same way, the Law is fulfilled when it is animated by love. The law fulfilled by love is the necessary and sufficient foundation of God’s kingdom, for only relationships built on this foundation will be genuine (holy) and therefore thrive. And the kingdom of God is all about holy relationships.
The right order or infrastructure of the Kingdom as described by the Law is necessary for holy relationships to form, flourish, and be forever sustained. The right order is necessary for true love to flow between God and His image-bearers and therefore between the image-bearers. In more profound terms, the kingdom of God is the holy community created to share in the eternal community of the Trinity. Because God is relational, it was His good pleasure to create relational beings to become a community with Him (Note: We must not make the mistake of suggesting God had to create the cosmos in order to in some way complete Himself. God is totally autonomous; neither His character nor his being is contingent on anything outside of Himself). And all of us who stand together with God in His kingdom are blessed.
Let us digress for a moment and think about this adjective, blessed. We shall see it is how Jesus introduces each beatitude. Are we to understand blessed as a method of entering His kingdom, or only some future reward awaiting those who will enter His kingdom? No, even if in their respective senses they are true, they don’t adequately define blessed as it is used in the beatitudes. The Greek word makarios translated blessed also means happy. We who stand in God’s kingdom are certainly blessed, because it is God’s sole accomplishment as an act of His inexpressible love. But it is also true happiness for us who stand in His kingdom. The fallen world has been on an unending carrot chase for happiness, trying every conceivable means to satisfy a hunger they fail to understand can only be sated by the Kingdom relationships we were created for. We can and only will be happy in God’s kingdom; this is Truth.
Blessed or happy describes the inner wholeness we have as kingdom dwellers, both now and when God consummates His kingdom. This blessed (happy) condition is not mere abstraction, but even now should manifest itself in the outward actions marking His kingdom dwellers. Putting it another way, this blessing is an inner heart condition that expresses itself in holy relationships. What Jesus will unpack for us with the Sermon on the Mount as His beatitudes is beautifully summarized in Proverbs 3:3-4:
Do not let truth and mercy leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will find favor and good understanding, in the sight of God and people. [NET]
True blessing and the happiness we all seek is only found in the restored relationships of God’s kingdom. And this is not something we earn, or a reward, but as you shall see, a transformation we have only in Christ.
There is a paradox in this relationship of love with this infrastructure illustrated for us by the Law. Unless the love is flowing in righteous (holy) relationships—that is, relationships circumscribed by the Law—the Law, itself, will be forsaken; it is only through love the Law is ever truly obeyed. To use our skeleton analogy, the skeleton is kept alive through the blood flowing through it from the flesh it gives shape. Likewise, the Law is vitalized by love. But even as the living skeleton manufacturers the blood cells that will return to keep the skeleton alive, the Law provides the boundaries of love. For it is as Paul said,
Owe nothing to anyone except the debt to love each other; for the one loving others has fulfilled the Law. For the edicts, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet, and if any other commandment, are summarized by this principle in this way: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does not work out bad for a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law. (Rom. 13:8-10)
It is a mistake, then, to view Christianity—walking in Christ’s kingdom—being a Christ follower—from a legal perspective only. This was the mistake Israel made. They thought the Torah could be obeyed by holding to a standard of the Law (e.g., the Sabbath requirements). But this approach ultimately crippled or outright destroyed relationships. This is a main theme of Jesus’ pronouncement of seven woes upon the Scribes and Pharisees recorded in Matthew 23:13-36. Let’s consider just a few to hopefully drive the point home.
“Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut out the Kingdom of Heaven from before the people; for you are not entering the Kingdom nor are you letting those who are entering to enter. Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you go around the sea and the desert in order to make a single convert, and whenever it happens, you make him twice a son of hell than you.”
In the fourth Woe Jesus explains how this happens.
“Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you give a tenth of the mint and the dill and the cumin, and forget the weightier things of the Law: the justice, the mercy, and the faithfulness. You must do the latter things and not forget the former things. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat but who swallow the camel.”
Returning to our analogy, then, if one attempts to keep the skeleton alive by depleting the flesh—such as, say, limiting the diet to only those foods that will build bones--one ends up killing both. Likewise, if we try to keep the Law without love, or love without the Law, we lose both. And this is exactly the fate of our fallen world.
Jesus teaches us the basis of the Law is love—that is, the law is fulfilled by love. What this looks like is what has come to be called the beatitudes fleshed out in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus ascended the mountain to reveal the Law—not a new law, but a fulfilled law. Indeed, it is the law God demanded from the very beginning. Jesus reveals to us the law of God’s kingdom, or as I called it earlier, the kingdom ethos. And every dweller of God’s kingdom will perfectly conform to this Law because Christ perfectly conformed to it.