THE LORD THEN began to speak to His disciples, though in the presence of the multitude, instructing them in the principles of the kingdom. First of all He showed what kind of people are going to possess the kingdom and enjoy its benefits. In the kingdoms of men today a man needs plenty of self-confidence and ‘pushyness’ if he is to be a success, but the opposite holds good for the kingdom of heaven. This had been already indicated in the Old Testament: Psalms 37:1-40, for instance, especially verse Matthew 5:11, plainly states it; yet the Lord here gives us a much enlarged view of this fact. He really sketches for us a moral picture of the godly remnant who will finally enter the kingdom. Eight things does He mention, beginning with poverty of spirit and ending with persecution, and there is a sequence in their order. Repentance produces poverty of spirit, and there all must start. Then comes the mourning and the meekness induced by a true sight of oneself, followed by a thirst for the righteousness which is only found in God. Then, filled with that, the saint comes out in God’s own character— mercy, purity, peace. But the world does not want God or His character, hence persecution closes the list.
The blessing, contemplated in verses Matthew 5:3-10, is to be fully realized in the kingdom of heaven, when it is established on earth. In each beatitude save the last the godly are described in an impersonal way: in verses Matthew 5:11-12 the Lord speaks personally to His disciples. The “they” of verse Matthew 5:10 changes to the “ye” of verse Matthew 5:11; and now, speaking to His disciples, reward in heaven is promised. He knew that these disciples of His were to pass on into a new and heavenly order of things, and so while reaffirming old things in a clearer light, He began to intimate some of the new things that were soon to come. The change in these two verses is striking and helps to show the character of the “Sermon on the Mount,” in which the Lord summarized His teaching, and related it to the old things given through Moses. In John 13:1-38; John 14:1-31; John 15:1-27; John 16:1-33, which we may call “The Sermon in the Upper Room,” we find Him expanding His teaching and relating it to the full light He would give when the Holy Ghost was come.
In persecution for His sake His disciples were to be blessed, and they were to recognize this and rejoice. Naturally we shrink from persecution but history proves the truth of these words. Those who are identified with Christ fully and boldly have to suffer, but they are sustained and recompensed; whereas those, who try to avoid it by compromise, miss all the recompense, and are miserable. And further, it is when the disciple is persecuted by the world that most definitely he is “the salt of the earth,” and “the light of the world.” Salt preserves, and light illuminates. We cannot be like healthful salt in the earth if we are of the earth. We cannot be as a light lifted up in the world if we are of the world. Now nothing more helps to keep us distinct and separate from the earth and world than persecution from the world, no matter what form it takes. Persecuted for Christ’s sake, the disciple is real salty salt, and he also emits a maximum of light. Does not this word of our Lord reveal to us the secret of much of our feebleness?
Notice too that the light is supposed to shine in things practical, not merely in things theological. It is not that men recognize it in our clear or original teachings expressed in words, but rather in our acts and works. They should certainly hear our good words, but they must see our good works, if we are to be light to them. The word for “good” here does not mean exactly benevolent but rather upright or honest. Such actions find their source in the Father in heaven: they shed His light and glorify Him.
From verse Matthew 5:17 to the end of Matthew 5:1-48 we find the Lord giving the connection between what He taught and that which had been given through Moses. He had not come to annul or destroy what had previously been given but rather to give the fulness of it—for such is the meaning here of the word, “fulfil.” He corroborated and enforced all that had been said, as verses Matthew 5:18-19 show, and not one word that God had spoken was to be broken. And moreover as verse Matthew 5:20 shows, He insisted that the righteousness which the law demanded had in it a fulness which far exceeds anything known or recognized by the superficial scribes and Pharisees of His day. They rendered a technical obedience in ceremonial matters and ignored the real spirit of the law and the object which God had in view. Their righteousness did not lead to the kingdom.
Consequently He proceeded to show that there was a fulness of meaning in the law’s demands that men had not suspected, referring to no less than six points as illustrating His theme. He spoke of the sixth and seventh commandments; then of the law as to divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1, then as to oaths in Leviticus 19:12; then of the law of retribution as given in Exodus 21:24 and elsewhere; and lastly of such a sanctioning of hatred towards enemies as is found in Deuteronomy 23:6.
As to the two commandments He quoted, His teaching evidently is that God has respect not only to the overt act but also to the inward disposition of the heart. What is prohibited is not merely the act of murder or adultery but the hatred and the lust of which the act is the expression. Judged by this standard, who is going to stand before the holy demands of Sinai? The “righteousness” of the scribe and Pharisee utterly collapses. Yet in both cases, having exposed this fact, He added some further instruction.
In verses Matthew 5:23-26, He showed two things of importance: first, no offering is acceptable to God if it be presented while there is unrighteousness manward. We cannot condone wrong towards man by professed piety towards God. Only when reconciliation has been effected can God be approached. Then, second, if the matter which causes estrangement is carried to law, the law must take its course apart from mercy. The Lord’s words here doubtless have prophetic significance. The Jewish nation was about to prosecute their case against Him, turning Him into their “adverse party,” and it will issue in their condemnation. They have not even yet paid the uttermost farthing.
So with the next instance: here He shows us that any sacrifice is worthwhile, if it but leads to a deliverance from the hell that lies at the end.
In the third and fourth cases (31-37) He again shows us that what was ordained through Moses did not express the full mind of God. Both divorce and swearing were permitted, and thus the standard that men had to attain was not made too severe. Both matters are here set in a fuller light, and we see that only one thing is to be permitted to dissolve the marriage bond; and then that men’s word should be so unequivocal and binding, that taking strong oaths, by this or that, is not needed. The man, who backs nearly every assertion by an oath, is a man whose simple word is not to be trusted.
Then again the law stipulated retribution of a very even kind for injury inflicted. It enjoined what we should call “tit for tat”; as also, while calling for love to one’s neighbour, it permitted the hatred of an enemy. This the Lord reversed. He inculcated forbearance and the grace that gives, rather than the insistence upon one’s rights; and also the love that will bless and do good to the enemy. And all this in order that His disciples may be quite distinct from the sinners of the world, and come out in the character of God Himself.
God is presented to them not as Jehovah, the Lawgiver, but as “your Father which is in heaven.” That is to say, He is now presented in a new light. It is this that governs the teachings of the Lord here, for if we know Him in this new way, we discover Him to be marked by benevolence towards the unjust and the evil, and we are to be in our measure what He is. In the ministry of Jesus a new revelation of God was dawning, and it entailed a new standard of perfection. We are to come out practically as sons of our Father in heaven, for the perfection of a son is to be as the Father.
Eight times over does He say in this chapter, “I say unto you,” and on six of these occasions the words are preceded by the word, “But,” throwing
His statement into contrast with what the law had previously said. We may well ask, “Who is this that quotes the holy law of God, and then calmly says, “But I say unto you”—so and so? He actually alters and enlarges the law, a thing that no prophet had ever dared to do! Does this not amount to terrible presumption, bordering on blasphemy?” Yes, indeed, and only one explanation will lift this charge from off Him. But that one explanation is true: here we have the original Lawgiver, who once spoke from Sinai. Now He has come forth in Manhood as Emmanuel. Emmanuel has gone up another mountain, and now speaks not to a nation but to His disciples. He has every right to enlarge or amend His own law.
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Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Matthew 5". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany