This year at Trinity Presbyterian Church we will be reading through the Bible together, walking together through God’s Word and hearing his voice together as one body. As part of that, each week, I will be writing a short article about one of the chapters from that week’s readings. These articles won’t be long. They won’t be scholarly (as you can see by the fact that I’m using contractions). Some weeks I’ll quote commentators, and some weeks I’ll simply give you my thoughts. My goal is to encourage you in your Bible reading while also helping to explain what you’re reading. If anyone has any questions about what you’re reading, whether the passage that gives you questions is the one I pick for these articles or not, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me and ask. As I’ve said before, a Bible reading plan isn’t about checking a box. It’s about encountering God in his Word. So read, meditate on what you read, ask questions if you’re having trouble understanding, and so feed in the pastures of God’s Word.
With that introduction out of the way, let’s get to our chapter from this week’s readings.
Matthew 5 begins what is known as Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount,” one of the most famous sermons Christ ever preached. You’ll, hopefully, notice rather quickly that Christ’s sermons are different than mine. They’re different than any pastor’s sermons are today. When I preach, I am expounding to you what God has said in his Word. Christ is the Word, so he could simply open his mouth, and what he proclaimed was the Word of God. Those listening at the time noticed this. At the end of the sermon in Matthew 7:28-29, we read, “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
The scribes of Jesus day always had to base what they said on someone else’s authority, and what is interesting is that usually this authority wasn’t Scripture, but rather the teachings of the rabbis. Teachings that would eventually become codified in what’s called the Talmud were already carrying a lot of weight when it came to religious instruction. So just imagine how revolutionary it would have been for Christ to come teaching on his own authority and actually contradicting what the rabbis were saying.
Now, Matthew 5 can be divided into two main sections. First, we have Christ’s teaching on the identity and mission of the Covenant People of God in Matthew 5:1-16. This section can be further divided into the beatitudes (which is just a fancy word for “blessings”) of Matthew 5:1-12, and the teaching on “salt and light” in Matthew 5:13-16. Then, in Matthew 5:17, Christ begins his discourse on the law, specifically the moral law (the 10 commandments), specifically the misunderstandings of that moral law that were common in that day. So, with those divisions in mind, let’s look at each of the sections individually.
As I said earlier, these sayings of Christ might better be called “The Blessings.” They take their name, “The Beatitudes,” from the Latin word for blessing, beatus. So, in the Latin Vulgate they read, “Beati are the poor in spirit…Beati are the meek…etc.” Isn’t that fascinating? I think that’s fascinating. More important than the etymological background behind why we call these sayings “The Beatitudes,” are the identity and conduct of those who are blessed. In verse 3 we see that these “blessed people” are poor in spirit, in verse 4 they mourn, in verse 5 they are meek, and in verse 6 they hunger and thirst after righteousness. I think this pretty clearly describes someone who has come face to face with their sin (and therefore knows they really are “poor in spirit”). This causes them to mourn, and in meekness they turn to Christ in repentance because they hunger and thirst after righteousness. In short, these first four beatitudes describe those who hear the gospel and respond in faith.
The next three beatitudes show us how the redeemed live. They know that those who desire God’s forgiveness can’t very well deny forgiveness to others, so they’re merciful. They’ve received Christ’s righteousness, and therefore they are pure in heart. They’ve been redeemed by the Prince of peace, so they want to bring peace wherever they go. Yet, just as the world rejects their master, the redeemed can expect to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. They can expect to be reviled, persecuted, and slandered, but in all things they take heart, knowing they have a great reward in heaven.
Salt and Light
The redeemed, then, are people called out of the world. And just like salt is immediately noticeable in food, just as light is immediately seen in the darkness, so the redeemed are to stand out in the world. The redemption we have in Christ must produce conduct that shows we have met the Savior. Often, people who misunderstand our doctrine of Justification will accuse Presbyterians of believing that people shouldn’t do good works. On the contrary, this text explicitly says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
We don’t do good works in order to earn God’s favor. We do good works because God has bestowed his favor upon us. We don’t do good works to make ourselves righteous. We do good works to bring glory to God. We must always keep this order of things in mind. We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone but is always accompanied by good works that testify to the grace of God in the life of the redeemed.
In the limited space I have left, let’s run through, very briefly, the section of this chapter wherein Christ explains the moral law. This section is “bookended” at the beginning and end by two important statements. First, Christ says in Matthew 5:17-19, that he has not come to abolish the law, and he in fact commends the moral law to us as that which shows us how to live a life pleasing to God. Then in Matthew 5:20, Christ tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (the most “righteous” people his listeners would have known) if we wish to enter the kingdom of heaven. If that wasn’t bad enough, in Matthew 5:48, Christ says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
All of Christ’s statements in this section explain what one must do in order to really keep the law. The scribes and Pharisees of Christ’s day claimed to keep the law, but in reality they were cutting corners. First, they’d cut corners by making sure they kept their sinning in their hears where no one else would know about it. You think you’ve kept the command to not murder? Well, have you been angry with someone? Who do you think you are to be angry with someone? Don’t you know you’re a sinner just like they are? You’ve already committed a sin of the heart that, if unchecked, would grow and eventually blossom into an open violation of the 6th commandment. The same thing applies to the 7th commandment. People can break the commandment against adultery in their hearts, and no one would even know it. They might say, “No, I’ve never done that,” but their sins of the heart are still known to God.
Then, they tried to cut corners by getting off on a technicality. “I wasn’t unfaithful, I just divorced my wife.” Christ says that excuse doesn’t fly if it’s not a biblical divorce, which he, as the Word of God incarnate helpfully defined (and Paul later adds an addendum as well). “I haven’t taken God’s name in vain. I kept the oath I made in his name.” Christ says that oaths are solemn acts of worship that shouldn’t just be entered into lightly. “I may have mistreated this other person, but they treated me badly first. Doesn’t God’s law say ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’?” Christ says that law was given to prevent Israel’s laws from serving the purpose of revenge. It was instituted to protect justice, not to justify vengeance.
So there you have it. Do all of those things, make your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, and be perfect if you ever want to see the kingdom of heaven. Now, ask yourself, can you do all that? If your answer was, “no,” so was mine. Christ’s teaching in this chapter is hard, and it’s supposed to be. He’s trying to show you that you really are poor in spirit. He wants you to mourn when you don’t measure up to this perfect standard. So don’t try to cut corners so your pride isn’t hurt, repent of your sins in meekness. If you hunger and thirst after righteousness, come to the one who said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” He’ll give you his righteousness and cause you, by the power of his Spirit, more and more to be able to live as one redeemed, as one whose righteousness really does exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.