Jesus, from the beginning of his teaching, not only announced the immanence of the kingdom of heaven, but taught about what kind of people would receive the benefits and blessings of being under the rule of God. This is what the sermon on the mount is about. The first and the last of the beatitudes or pronouncements of blessing tell us that those described will receive or possess the kingdom of heaven.
The verses between tell something of the kind of people who receive the blessings of the kingdom and what those blessings are. They tell of the relationship they will have with the King and what they will receive for subjecting themselves to his rule. What these verses tell us is that the kingdom is about life – the life that can only be realized in this relationship with God as he describes it.
He tells his listeners that they would have a significant function in the kingdom. They were to be to the world as salt is to food. The idea here is not that salt gives flavor to food, but of its value as a preservative. In Bible times there were basically two ways of preserving food; drying it or salting it. His disciples were to function in the world as a preservative, hindering the ruin of the world by means of their righteousness. In doing this they served as agents of the kingdom of God, extending his rule over the world and pointing to God and his rule as the only hope of the world. They were also to be as light to the world, dispelling its darkness and ignorance.
Then Jesus says something very significant in the next verses. First he tells them that there would be a continuity from the past into the future. He had not come to abolish the law of God, he was going to fulfill it, to bring it to its complete manifestation and that no one should teach or encourage anyone to break the law of God thinking that the law no longer applied. Then he tells them something strange – he brings the them into the picture by telling them that in order for them to share in the benefits of the kingdom there was going to be a deeper form of righteousness required of them than what they witnessed from the scribes and Pharisees.
What was it about the righteousness of these people, the scribes and Pharisees, that disqualified them for the kingdom? They were sticklers for the law. People admired them for the way they supposedly kept the law. (Some people today who profess to be Christians still admire them!) They were so gung-ho on law that they even added to the law, supposedly to make sure they kept all the law. What was it Jesus didn’t approve of in their law-keeping? All we have to do is to keep reading and Jesus answers this puzzling question.
He begins to explain the problem by citing six examples of how the law had been traditionally applied. “You have heard that it was said to those of old” (Matt. 5:21) or some variation thereof introduced the usual interpretation of these misunderstood and misapplied commandments. The first example was the command “You shall not murder,” to which the part, “whoever murders will be liable to judgment” had been added. This limited the meaning of the command to prohibiting only the actual taking of life. This was the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. All one had to do was to abstain from actual murder and he was considered to be faithful to this aspect of the law of God. Their righteousness dealt with the outward acts only even though God had always demanded obedience from the heart.
Deuteronomy 10:12 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
But Jesus doesn’t leave the matter there. He sees the Pharisees righteousness as deficient. Their righteousness did not get to the root cause of murder. The Kingdom righteousness Jesus was presenting to his disciples goes to the heart of the matter – the human heart, that is. When he says, “But I say to you,” he is showing that kingdom law – God’s law – was always meant to deal with the root cause of sin. He said, “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment,” meaning that when anger against a brother is allowed in the heart he has already broken the law. Jesus begins where sin begins. The anger that leads to murder is as much wrong as the murder itself.
He goes on to expand on this theme when he said, “whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Thus, the acts of insulting (or devaluing) one’s brother is a sin in the same category as actual murder, as is the belittling of a brother by calling him a fool. Kingdom righteousness, then, deals with the heart and with the attitudes of an individual toward others.
The same can be seen in the remainder of the examples Jesus cites here. With the matter of lust this may be more easily seen than with his teaching about divorce, but the application is the same. The sin in the case of lust begins in the heart and progresses into outward action. To stop sin one must deal with it at its beginning point – the hearts and minds of men and women. In reference to divorce, again the character or heart of the individual is the focus, not merely outward acts.
The problem evident in the Pharisee’s religion was not unique to that sect. It began long before their day. God had always demanded the heart of the individual, not just outward obedience. He made that plain through Moses when he commanded the Israelites, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deut 10.16).
The problem was evident in the days of the prophets. Through the prophet Isaiah, God spoke of it this way:
“…this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,” (Isaiah 29:13).
… and it hadn’t gotten any better by the time Jesus came hundreds of years later. In his confrontation with the Pharisees over the tradition of washing hands in Matthew 15, he applied the same text to them for their attempted justification by means of the assiduous observance of traditional practices.
You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
8 “‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matthew 15:7-9).
Theirs was a religion of the mouth, not of the heart. They were quick to assert that they were faithful because of all the things they did, but their heart was far away from God. Their focus was upon themselves and their performance. Theirs was an external religion of superficial practice and not a loving relationship with the living God in which they were being changed more and more into his likeness.
What those who are committed to a legalistic approach to religion fail to realize is that before obedience to commandments can accomplish what the commandments were intended to accomplish man must devote his entire being to God, not just the physical body. A robot can perform a set of programmed tasks but it has no consciousness of the programmer. A trained monkey can do tricks as a result of conditioning, but it does not comprehend the nature of its master nor does it wish to honor him. Man can perform religious rituals without the desire of knowing God or of honoring him. He may just do things to keep God “off his back” or to score “brownie points” with him.
One does not deal with these deepest of all problems through religion – Pharisaical or otherwise. All the church memberships and attendance and all the ritualistic incantations in the world will not heal the proud, hating, hurtful, arrogant heart of man.Man does not by his performances bring God into alignment with his own agenda.The only thing that will change the heart is to submit it wholly to the rule or kingship of God. Only by bringing himself under the loving, benevolent rule of the Creator can man worship God acceptably and through his loving response be transformed into the kind of people who properly belong in the kingdom.
This relationship of submission in faith and in love means the yielding of the whole self to the gracious, transforming power of God. Look at all Paul says that God does for us. He said he did these things …
“…not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:5-7).
Who wouldn’t want to be part of a kingdom in which all these things are done for us by a loving and merciful God? All of it is done by him to the end of our perfection in his likeness, the fulfilling of God’s grand design for human life.