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The Sermon on the Mount
Summary —The Beatitudes. The Salt of the Earth. The Light of the World. The Relation of Christ to the World. The Law Not to Be Disregarded. The Law Modified; The Law of Murder; of Adultery; of Divorce; of Oaths; of Retaliation; of Love.
1. Seeing the multitudes. We gather from Luke, chapter 6, that the Lord passed the night in the mountain in prayer; in the morning he chose and ordained the twelve; he then came down to the plain, where he found a vast multitude, whom he taught. Went up into a mountain. Thought to be the “Horns of Hattin,” a mountain about seven miles south of Capernaum, near the Sea of Galilee. When he was set. Eastern teachers usually sat while teaching. His disciples came. Not the apostles only, but all anxious to learn and follow him. Disciple means a learner.
2. Opened his mouth and taught. This wonderful discourse of three chapters is to the New Dispensation what the law given from Sinai was to the Old. That was the moral law of Judaism, this is the moral law of Christianity; that was given from “the Mount that could not be touched,” this from the Mount of blessing. Compare Luke 6:20–49.
3. Blessed. There follow nine beatitudes, each of which pronounces a blessing upon those who have certain characteristics. The word “blessed” is first applied to God, and means more than “happy,” as it has sometimes been translated. Happiness comes from earthly things; blessedness comes from God. It is not bestowed arbitrarily; a reason follows each beatitude. The poor in spirit. The humble, in contrast with the haughty; those sensible of spiritual destitution. The same state of mind is referred to when he speaks elsewhere of a contrite and broken spirit. Is the kingdom of heaven. Such shall become members of the kingdom that Christ will establish. The Jews were rejected from this kingdom on account of their spiritual pride.
4. Blessed are they that mourn. Not all mourners, for there is “a sorrow of this world that worketh death.” Godly sorrow is meant, a mourning over sinfulness. See 2 Cor. 7:10.
5. Blessed are the meek. The mild, the gentle, opposed to the proud and ambitious, the kind who succeed in such a kingdom as the Jews expected. Shall inherit the earth. The land; Canaan as the type of all blessings. It is the heavenly land especially that is inherited. The especial reference is to the Messiah's kingdom, of which “the land” of Canaan was a type.
6. Blessed are they that hunger, etc. This implies the same sense of spiritual needs as verses 3 and 4. Hunger is a felt want, in this case a want of righteousness before God, the righteousness that comes from the forgiveness of sins. See Luke 15:17.
7. Blessed are the merciful. The merciful, those who, instead of resenting injury, are ready to forgive, shall obtain the divine mercy. The fifth petition of the Lord's prayer implies that we must forgive if we expect to be forgiven.
8. Blessed are the pure in heart. The Jew, under the tuition of the Pharisees, cared little for the state of the heart, so that outward forms were duly kept. Jesus, however, demands that the heart, the affections, the mind, shall be purified, as the fountain from whence flows the moral and religious life. A pure heart begets a pure life; an impure heart, a corrupt life. They shall see God. Not with the natural eye, but the spiritual vision; by faith. In the pure heart the Lord will dwell and his presence will be recognized. See John 14:23.
9. Blessed are the peacemakers. Not the soldiers of a warrior king, such as the Jews expected but the men who, in the name of the Prince of Peace, go forth to proclaim peace and good will among men. Christ is the great Peacemaker.
10. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake. The Jews expected a conquering kingdom, and its citizens to be lords among the nations, but Christ pronounces a blessing on those who are persecuted, not for misdeeds, but for righteousness. These shall have the kingdom. Doubtless these words have sustained and cheered many a martyr.
11. Blessed … when men revile you. This is a personal application of what has just preceded. Some of those who listened were reviled by the Jews, and persecuted unto death. For my sake. In the preceding verse it is said “for righteousness' sake.” The two expressions mean the same.
12. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad. On account of persecution. The reason why they may justly rejoice is given: Great is your reward in heaven. So persecuted they the prophets. Isaiah is said to have been sawed asunder; Jeremiah was thrown into a dungeon and threatened with death; Elijah was hunted by Ahab and Jezebel.
13. Ye are the salt of the earth. Salt preserves from corruption. The disciples of Christ preserve the world from general corruption. Whatever becomes utterly corrupted is doomed to be destroyed. But if the salt have lost its savour. Salt is worthless if it has lost its qualities. It preserves no longer. It is fit only to be cast out and trodden under foot. So, too, if those who are the salt of the earth cease to communicate saving power, they are fit only to be cast out, and Christ will cast such out of his mouth (see Rev. 3:16).
14. Ye are the light of the world. The business of the church is not only to save, but to enlighten. Christ is light, and his disciples must be light. A city set on an hill. Anciently cities, for the sake of defense, were placed on hills. Such cities are seen from afar. So must the church give forth its light.
15. Light a candle and put it under a bushel. A lamp, in the Revision, which is correct. Candles and candlesticks were not used in Scripture times. It would be foolishness to light a lamp and put it under a bushel measure.
16. Even so, let your light shine. Like the city set on a hill, or the lighted lamp on a stand. We are told, 1. To let our light shine. 2. Before men. 3. By good works. 4. That they may glorify the Father in heaven. Christ is the Light; we will shine reflected light if we walk in his light. If we give forth light it will honor God.
17. Think not that I am come to destroy the law and the prophets. The preceding verses were so opposed to the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees that some might assert that he was a destroyer of the law. He replies that he has not come to destroy it, but to fulfil. He does not say that he has come to perpetuate it. To fulfil. To complete its purpose. He was the end of the law. It was a “schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24), but “after faith is come we are no longer under the schoolmaster.”
18. One jot or tittle. Jot means the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, while tittle refers to a simple turn by which one letter is distinguished from another. The expression, “jot or tittle,” was proverbial for the smallest part. Till all be fulfilled. “Till,” says Dr. Schaff, “implies that after the great events of Christ's life, and the establishment of his kingdom, the old dispensation, as a dispensation of the letter and yoke of bondage, as a system of types and shadows, will pass away, and has passed away (Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14; Heb. 8:13); while the spirit and substance of the law, i. e., love to God and man, will last forever.”
19. Shall break one of the least of these. The Pharisees taught that some commands were more important than others, and that it was a trivial matter to break the smallest commands. The papists still divide sin into mortal and venial. Christ shows that the spirit of obedience does not seek to make such distinction. Shall be least. He may get into the kingdom, possibly, but such a spirit will give him a very low spiritual rank.
20. Your righteousness shall exceed. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees has just been referred to (see Matt. 3:7). They claimed to be the teachers and examples of righteousness, but they lacked the humble spirit of true obedience.
21. Ye have heard. Jesus now gives the law a new form to adapt it to his kingdom. It takes a new, a deeper, a more spiritual shape and meaning. By them of old time. In this case, Moses. See Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17. Thou shalt not kill. One of the ten commandments. Christ, the Divine Lawgiver, modifies it. In danger of the judgment. The civil courts. The law provided in every city a court of seven judges, who could sentence a criminal to death (Deut. 16:18).
22. But I say unto you. Jehovah had spoken the Decalogue to Israel. Christ assumes the right to amend it. Such a claim is based on a claim of divinity. Whosoever is angry with his brother. Jesus goes back of the murderous act, and forbids the anger and the reproachful words that precede it and are likely to lead it. He places the murderous heart on the level of actual murder. Raca. An epithet of contempt; “empty head,” or “spit out,” that is, a heretic. The council. The Sanhedrim, the highest court of Israel. It corresponded to our Supreme Court, and had seventy members. Thou fool. The original implies a stupid, wicked fool. Of hell fire. The Greek is “the Gehenna of fire.” The term Gehenna arose from the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the Canaanites burned human sacrifices to Moloch. After the return of the Jews from the Captivity they made it a place of defilement, where the refuse of the city was thrown and burned. The name was applied to the place of future punishment by the Jews. The word is often used in the New Testament (Matt. 23:33; 5:29; 10:28; 18:9; Mark 9:43), and always denotes a place of future punishment.
23, 24. Therefore, if thou bring thy gift to the altar. This springs immediately out of the modification of the law, Thou shalt not kill, which required that there should be no anger with a brother. If about to offer a gift on the altar, and the remembrance comes that a brother hath aught against thee, leave the gift, go and make it right with him, and then offer thy gift. This shows that one guilty of wrongs to his fellow-man cannot offer acceptable worship of God.
25. Agree with thine adversary quickly. By adversary is meant an opponent in a lawsuit who is supposed to have a just claim, in this case a creditor. Officer. The same as our sheriff. Under all the old laws debt could be punished with imprisonment.
26. Thou shalt not come out from thence. After the debtor was cast into prison he was held until the debt was paid, and if it were not, he remained in prison until he died. Farthing. A small, insignificant copper coin. The warning against lawsuits is clear, but there is a higher idea still. The Lord would warn us to make everything right before it is too late. Before the judgment there is a chance; after it there is nothing but payment.
27, 28. Thou shalt not commit adultery. The Jewish rabbins held that a man was guiltless who did not commit the act. Christ, as he always did, lays the laws upon the heart. If it is impure, full of unholy desires, one is guilty. It is our duty to keep the heart pure.
29. If thy right eye offend thee. The eye that giveth a lustful look. A licentious passion, or anything that tempts to sin, whether thoughts within, friends, or surroundings. Pluck it out. Cast far from you what would lead to sin. It is profitable. Better to suffer deep mortification by self-denial than to be judged worthy of hell. Body. Used for the whole man.
30. If thy right hand. The same thought as in verse 29, with a new illustration.
31, 32. Whosoever shall put away his wife. The divorce laws were very lax among the Jews. A man could put away his wife “for any cause” (Matt. 19:8). Moses directed a legal letter of divorcement (Deut. 24:1). Christ positively forbids divorce except for unchastity. Marriage is a divine institution, and the obligation is for life (Matt. 19:3–9; Rom. 7:1–3; 1 Cor. 7:10–17).
33. Thou shalt not forswear thyself. (See Lev. 19:12; and Num. 25:2.) The Jews held that this only prohibited swearing falsely and by the name of God.
34, 35. Swear not at all. Christ does not forbid judicial oaths. Note, (1) God sometimes swears by himself (Gen. 22:16, 17); (2) Jesus made oath before the Sanhedrim (Matt. 26:63); (3) Paul made oath to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 1:23). He does forbid all profanity and idle oaths, such as were common among the Jews, and still so defile the mouths of men. Neither by heaven. The Jews held that it was impious to swear by the name of God, but that one could swear “by heaven,” “by the earth,” “by Jerusalem.” One was God's throne, the second his footstool, Jerusalem the city of the Messiah King, all too holy for profanation.
36. By thy head. Senseless, since the oath could have no meaning. Dr. Thompson (The Land and the Book) says the Orientals are still terribly profane, swearing continually by the head, the beard, the heart, the temple, the church.
37. Let your speech be, Yea, yea. All foolish appeals are forbidden. A simple statement is all Christ permits. All beyond is evil, “and cometh of evil.” Indeed, it makes one doubt the truth of him who has to confirm every assertion by an oath.
38. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The law quoted is found in Exod. 21:23–25 and Lev. 24:18–20. Moses intended it to protect person and property by prescribing what punishment the law should inflict. He who took a life should lose his life; he who robbed another of an eye should be punished by the loss of an eye. The Jews perverted it to justify private retaliation.
39. Resist not evil. Jesus does not forbid the judicial application of the law, but personal revenge, such as was common among the Jews. Instead of turning upon those who injure us, and becoming a party to personal broils, it is the duty of Christians to suffer meekly. Turn to him the other. This must be the Christian spirit, the great law of love, which “endureth all things.” This is not a code to be slavishly observed in the letter, but its spirit must always be preserved. See John 18:22, and Acts 23:3, for the application.
40. If any man would sue. That is, is about to sue thee. Take thy coat. The inner garment, the tunic or shirt. Cloak. The outer garment, the covering at night. It could not be held by a creditor (Exod. 22:26–27). Better to give it up, too, than to engage in litigation. Many a poor soul has realized this when it was too late, and the lawyers had divided his property. Avoid lawsuits.
41. Compel thee to go a mile. In those days, when there were no stages, railroad trains, postal lines, or regular means of conveyance, it was common for officers traveling to impress men to assist them on the route. It was a necessary, but oppressive, exaction. Christ directs to yield the service, and double it rather than refuse it. A mile. A Roman word from mille, a thousand. A Roman mile was a thousand paces, 1,520 yards.
42. Give to him that asketh thee. Palestine swarmed with blind, lepers, and maimed, who were dependent on charity. Turn not away. The Lord does not bid to give to every one, not to loan to every one, for this would not be a blessing, but to have a spirit that will be ready to do so whenever it is right.
43. Thou shalt love thy neighbor. See Lev. 19:18. The Jews gave the command a very limited application. For Christ's application, see parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37). It embraces any one so near us as to need and to receive our acts of kindness. Hate thine enemy. A Jewish perversion of the meaning of Deut. 23:6. It exhibits the spirit of the whole heathen world. Plato praises the Athenians because they hated the Persians more than any of the other Greeks.
44. I say … Love your enemies. The fundamental law of Christ's kingdom. Henceforth love is to be boundless as the ocean. His own earthly life is its perfect application. The enemies are to be conquered by love. See John 3:16. Love will return blessing for cursing, good will for hating, prayers for evil treatment and persecution. Christ on the cross prayed for his enemies; so did Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
45. That ye may be children of your Father. We are God's children when we have the spirit of our Father. We are not if we have the spirit of the world. Our Father above sends blessing, the rain, and the sunshine, on the just and the unjust. He loves all, and even sent his son to have a wicked world because he loved (John 3:16).
47. Salute your brethren only. The Jews usually disdained to speak to a Gentile, a publican, or a “sinner,” but would salute orthodox Jews. Even the Gentiles, the heathen nations, had enough of love for this. Unless the disciples could love better than the Jews, they would be on a level with publicans and heathen.
48. Be ye therefore perfect. To carry out fully this great law of love would lift man to the Divine standard of perfection. This must be the aim of life. We have before us as a pattern for the perfect God; we have the Divine perfection embodied in Christ. It will require a constant struggle while in the flesh to come near so high an ideal, but it must be our continual aim. This does not teach such sanctification that we cannot sin, nor that we, here on earth, attain absolute perfection, but we have placed before us, as a model, the perfect ideal, and we will constantly ascend higher by striving to attain it.
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