In chapter four of Matthew, Jesus had commanded his followers to repent for the “kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This announcement would have caused those following him to ask questions. Louis Barbieri, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, places us in the mind of the Jews hearing Jesus.
Natural questions on the heart of every Jew would have been, ‘Am I eligible to enter Messiah’s kingdom? Am I righteous enough to qualify for entrance?’ The only standard of righteousness the people knew was that laid down by the current religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees. Would one who followed that standard be acceptable in Messiah’s kingdom?
Chapters 5-7 in Matthew are known as the Sermon on the Mount and they consist of Jesus answering these questions for his disciples. Barbieri explains that
Jesus’ sermon therefore must be understood in the context of His offer of the kingdom to Israel and the need for repentance to enter that kingdom. The sermon did not give a ‘Constitution’ for the kingdom nor did it present the way of salvation. The sermon showed how a person who is in right relationship with God should conduct his life.
Verses 2-12 are known as the “Beatitudes.” Michael Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains the origin of the term:
The name ‘beatitude’ is derived from the Latin noun beatitudo, because the first word of each statement in the Latin Vulgate is beati (adj. related to the noun), which translates the Greek word makarios (traditionally rendered in English as ‘blessed’).
The Beatitudes are a description of the kinds of people who will populate the kingdom of heaven, which is both present, with Jesus, and future, when he returns to reclaim the entire earth for God at his second coming.
The “poor in spirit” are those who acknowledge their complete powerlessness and spiritual bankruptcy without Jesus. Those who are economically deprived (materially poor) are often more likely to acknowledge their reliance on God than those who are wealthy. The “poor in spirit” have the kingdom of heaven now and will have it more fully at the second coming.
Those who “mourn” are those who grieve over their personal sins and the sins of mankind in general. It could also refer to those who are suffering in this life. In the future kingdom of heaven, God promises to comfort these people.
The “meek” are those who are humble and gentle. They will rule with Christ over the new heavens and earth in the future kingdom.
Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” yearn for God’s moral laws to be established and obeyed by all mankind. In the future kingdom, this will indeed be the case.
The “merciful” are those who are forgiving and compassionate toward others. They will receive this compassion from God in His kingdom.
The “pure in heart” are those who display a single-minded devotion toward God. Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary, writes:
Purity in heart refers to moral uprightness and not just ritual cleanliness. The Pauline theme of the impossibility of perfect purity in this life should not be imported here. Rather, as with ‘righteousness’ in general for Matthew, what Jesus requires of his disciples is a life-style characterized by pleasing God . . . . The ‘pure in heart’ exhibit a single-minded devotion to God that stems from the internal cleansing created by following Jesus. Holiness is a prerequisite for entering God’s presence. The pure in heart pass this test, so they will see God and experience intimate fellowship with him. This Beatitude closely parallels Ps 24:3–4.
The “peacemakers” are those who work to reconcile people to God and to each other. They will be subjects in God’s future kingdom.
Finally, in verses 10-12 Jesus explains that the person who does all these things will be persecuted because the world rejects this lifestyle. A person who is living for God will inevitably be attacked, but Jesus promises that they will be rewarded in his future kingdom.
In verses 17-20 Jesus answers his critics who claim that he is undermining the Hebrew scriptures (“Law and Prophets” is shorthand for the entire Old Testament) with his teaching. Jesus corrects them by saying that he is not contradicting the Scriptures, but rather he is fulfilling them. Through his teachings, life, death, and resurrection, he will not only fulfill the messianic prophecies, but he will explain and demonstrate the intended meaning behind all of God’s Word.
Jews at this time believed that the only way to enter the future messianic kingdom was to adhere to the legalistic rules laid out by the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus, however, clearly states that the righteousness attained by following their rules is insufficient. How so? The scribes and Pharisees were focused on external and outward obedience to God’s Word. Jesus will teach in the remainder of chapter five that obedience to God’s Word starts inside a person. It must be inside-out.
Jesus will give six examples of Pharisaical teachings and then correct them. What is he trying to accomplish with these six illustrations? Michael J. Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, explains:
This section of the Sermon on the Mount is commonly called ‘the antitheses’ because six times Jesus says a variation of, ‘You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you.’ This has been mistakenly interpreted to mean that Jesus makes his teaching the antithesis of the OT itself (e.g., Luz 2007, 277– 79), as if he were overturning and declaring incorrect the testimonies of the OT. But in reality Jesus is contrasting his interpretation of the OT with faulty interpretations and/ or applications of the OT. In each of the antitheses, Jesus demonstrates how the OT is to be properly interpreted and applied, and thus, how the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled (cf. 5: 17). This elevates Jesus above all interpreters, making his pronouncements equivalent with Scripture itself.
The scribes and Pharisees held sway over the common people, mapping out a course for attaining righteousness through their interpretation and application of the OT. They emphasized legalistic, external obedience to the Law without calling attention to an inner heart-obedience. They were therefore ‘hypocrites’ in their practice of the Law (see on 6: 1– 18), and were responsible for leading the people into hypocritical practices. Jesus looks at several examples of how they had done this, and demonstrates how correct interpretation and application of the Law must be based upon proper intent and motive. Jesus does not say, ‘Hear what the OT says,’ but rather, ‘You have heard it said.’ He is not negating the OT, but the people’s incorrect understanding and application of it.
Given time constraints, we will skip to the fifth illustration in verses 38-42. In these verses, Jesus teaches his followers about retaliation when they are wronged. The OT guidelines, captured in the saying “eye for an eye,” are meant to limit retribution or retaliation. A person can only be punished in proportion to his crime. For example, if you stole a relatively inexpensive object from your neighbor, your neighbor is not allowed to seek capital punishment, as this is clearly disproportionate punishment.
Jesus, however, teaches that his disciples need to go even further with regard to personal retaliation against those who are oppressing them. If a person insults you (a slap on the cheek in Jewish culture), do not retaliate with an insult back at that person.
If a person sues you to gain some disputed property (in this case a tunic), do not fight his legal case, but offer him an even more valuable piece of clothing, a cloak. Wilkins explains the historical context of the tunic and cloak:
The tunic was the basic garment, a long-sleeved inner robe similar to a nightshirt that a person wore next to the skin. It was often worn short by men and ankle length by the women. The ‘cloak’ was the outer robe (cf. 27:35; John 19:23–24), which was an indispensable piece of clothing. When it was given as a pledge, it had to be returned before sunset, because it was used by the poor as a sleeping cover.
Roman soldiers were legally allowed to force Jews to help them carry their equipment for a distance. In this situation, a disciple of Jesus should not resist, but instead offer to carry the equipment even further.
If people ask you for help, help them by giving to them or letting them borrow something they need.
The sixth illustration, in verses 43-48, is perhaps the most challenging to Jesus’s followers. Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. God Himself provides the blessings of sunshine and rain for all people, even those who hate Him, therefore we are to imitate Him. Jesus points out that if you only love your family and friends, then there is nothing special about you. Even tax collectors and idol-worshiping pagans do that. Craig Blomberg adds:
Christians must love their enemies (v. 44). Otherwise they are no different than tax collectors and pagans, two groups classically despised by orthodox Jews—the first for working for Rome in collecting tribute from Israel and the second because of their false religion (v. 46). Almost all people look after their own. The true test of genuine Christianity is how believers treat those whom they are naturally inclined to hate or who mistreat or persecute them.
In verse 48 Jesus tells his disciples to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Is Jesus giving his disciples an impossible task? Blomberg writes:
The paragraph begun in v. 43 closes with a command that may equally summarize all six antitheses. ‘Perfect’ here is better translated as ‘mature, whole,’ i.e., loving without limits (probably reflecting an underlying Aramaic tamim). Jesus is not frustrating his hearers with an unachievable ideal but challenging them to grow in obedience to God’s will—to become more like him. J. Walvoord rightly observes, ‘While sinless perfection is impossible, godliness, in its biblical concept, is attainable.’ But such godliness cannot be comprehensively formulated in a set of rules; the ethics of the sermon are suggestive, not exhaustive.