Similar to murder, Jesus addresses not just the sin of adultery but also the internal process behind the act of adultery. It is unlikely many people in his original audience were serial adulterers and no one would have considered adultery to a positive influence on society.

Adultery does not happen by accident. There is a period of temptation that occurs before the actual action itself. But where does that process start? I would suggest one’s view of marriage and relationships between the sexes are shaped from a very young age. If a young man is taught adultery is acceptable in some situations or he observes sexual harassment and mistreatment of women regularly, then it is likely those behaviors will be normative for him.

The source of the problem of adultery seems to be “looking where one ought not look,” a point made in the Second Temple wisdom book Sirach. Sirach is instructing young men and he is certainly not politically correct from a modern perspective. (If his words offend, try switching the pronouns, instead of “Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman” change it to “Turn away your eyes from a shapely man.” It works either way.)

Sirach 9:1–9 (NRSV)  Do not be jealous of the wife of your bosom, or you will teach her an evil lesson to your own hurt. 2 Do not give yourself to a woman and let her trample down your strength. 3 Do not go near a loose woman, or you will fall into her snares. 4 Do not dally with a singing girl, or you will be caught by her tricks. 5 Do not look intently at a virgin, or you may stumble and incur penalties for her. 6 Do not give yourself to prostitutes, or you may lose your inheritance. 7 Do not look around in the streets of a city, or wander about in its deserted sections. 8 Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman, and do not gaze at beauty belonging to another; many have been seduced by a woman’s beauty, and by it passion is kindled like a fire. 9 Never dine with another man’s wife, or revel with her at wine; or your heart may turn aside to her, and in blood you may be plunged into destruction.

Just like the previous expansion of “do not murder” to include the mental processes behind murder, Jesus points to the internal thoughts and attitudes which lead to adultery. Rather than “looking where one ought not,” perhaps it should be “thinking what one ought not.” I had a friend in high school who was told by his parents it was okay to look, but not touch. This led to a series of seriously bad choices for him over the years. Jesus is clear: it is impossible to separate thoughts from actions. Internal anger will come out as rage and destructive words. Lust will develop into some external behavior.

For most younger people in the west, sexual attitudes are formed online where pornography is easily discovered. The worldview of pornography is damaging to both men and women and skews a biblical view of sexual relationships and marriage. The Bible celebrates sexual relationships (although that does seem to be the case for some Christian teaching).

What goes on inside someone’s head is impossible to see, we tend to think that no one knows or cares that we have thought impure thoughts. Jesus explodes this by comparing those private thoughts to the act of adultery itself. As with Jesus’s teaching on anger, it is important to at least observe he is teaching all his disciples to control their internal lust, both men and women. Although men are usually the problem, female disciples of Jesus are called to the same high standards as the men.

Jesus uses some very strong language to describe how we are to handle this problem. If this is taken literally all men would have been blinded in junior high school. This verse does not teach self-mutilation as a cure for sin.

Jesus is saying, in effect, “don’t let your eyes make you sin.” Don’t put yourself in a position to look lustfully. Jesus often uses hyperbole to shock his audience, to pluck out an eye is an exaggeration since a blind man can still lust. The prime example of this is David, who saw Bathsheba and then committed adultery.  Should he have “plucked” his eye out?  No, but he should have had the sense not to be in that position to see Bathsheba in the first place.

The problem for the modern reader is how to draw implications of Jesus’s teaching to new situations. As I write this, the #MeToo movement is still developing and the alleged immoral behavior of a Supreme Court candidate is in the headlines.

Is it narrow-minded to apply Jesus’s words to the epidemic of sexual harassment women have faced for generations? A commitment to marital fidelity often results in people calling you a prude, a Puritan, etc. But if Jesus was correct about internal anger, is he also correct about the dangerous effects of internal lustful thoughts?

Rather than continue in a state of anger, Jesus tells his disciples to reconcile with their fellow disciple before going to worship (5: 23-24). “Brother” ought to be understood as referring to all disciples, certainly women are included in the command to reconcile. But did Jesus intend for reconciliation to be restricted to only fellow disciples? Likely not, but if there is some offense between followers of Jesus reconciliation ought to be the highest priority.

That Jesus uses familial language should not be a surprise since he conceived of his followers as a family unit. For example, he considered those who do the will of the Father to be his brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:46-50). Peter says the twelve have left everything to follow Jesus, including “brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands” (Matthew 19:27-30). Jesus’s disciples are a new family so though ought to deal with disruptions as a good family does, by seeking reconciliation.

Jesus says a fellow disciple “has something against you,” implying the disciple has indeed wronged a fellow disciple. Since the one who has done the wrong needs to reach out and begin the process of reconciliation, the person knows they are in the wrong and are causing a disruption within the family.

Reconciliation is to create a sense of harmony between two parties, to “restore normal relations” (BDAG). Matthew uses διαλλάσσομαι, only used here in the New Testament, but the word is related to καταλλάσσω a few more times. The word group is sometimes used in a political context where two parties have become estranged and need a third party to act as a go between and restore the relationship.

Jesus offers a simple process for seeking reconciliation between disciples.

First, reconciliation requires recognition of an offense. In verse 23 the worshiper remembers they have offended or hurt someone. The main reason people do not seek reconciliation is they think they were in the right and they are waiting for the other person to come to them and apologize!

Second, reconciliation should be the first priority. The worshiper sets aside their sacrifice and seeks reconciliation. McKnight points out the need for reconciliation between Jesus’s disciples trumps even offering a sacrifice at the Temple! (Sermon 79). It would be easy to put off an admission of guilt with a hundred “good excuses,” but Jesus says to set everything aside and seek reconciliation.

Third, reconciliation can happen when the offender reaches out to the one offend, “go to the person.” It seems obvious, but someone might admit guilt in their heart and pray for the other person and think they are now reconciled. Jesus says to go the person, face them and admit you are wrong. This is extremely humbling and difficult and it is important this happens face-to-face.

Fourth, reconciliation must come quickly (v. 25). The longer one waits to seek out the person they wronged, the more difficult reconciliation becomes. This is partially because both sides become entrenched in their belief they are in the right!

In Matthew 5:23-26 Jesus is describing personal reconciliation between disciples. If the disciple of Jesus is really dealing with anger in their heart, then they will deal with any anger they have toward another member of Jesus’s family or the anger they are causing among the disciples of Jesus.

Should we draw the implication that larger groups need to find some sort of reconciliation? I can easily think of examples of splits within a church which are in desperate need of reconciliation, often after many years of anger and resentment. This could be applied to denominational splits and the possibility of reconciliation between people of similar faiths.

Going even further, reconciliation may be needed between people who have been the victim of sexual harassment or racial prejudice. How can Jesus’s process for reconciliation be applied to these larger, systemic issues?

Matthew 5:21–22 (ESV) “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

In the next few sections of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus interprets some well-known teaching from the Law. The first two are drawn from the Ten Commandments. In each case Jesus quotes the commandment and then extends the commandment to include the inner thoughts as well as the external actions. As McKnight points out, Jesus does not disagree with the original command, but he does object to the way the command has been interpreted by other Jewish teachers. For McKnight, Jesus’s interpretations reveal “a fuller expression of God’s will for God’s people” (Sermon, 76). Jesus focuses on the underlying motivation for murder, specifically anger. In each of the three parts of this saying, as the level of anger rises, so too does the penalty.

First, Jesus says a person who is angry with a brother is “under judgment.” The penalty for taking another person’s life varies in the Law. If a person accidentally kills another they may face a penalty but they would not be subject to capital punishment. But the penalty for premeditated murder was execution. Numbers 35:16-21 gives a series of examples of killing to properly define murder and in each case the murderer is to be put to death. The shocking element of this saying is equating anger and premeditated murder. Although anger is always considered foolish in the wisdom literature, it is never thought to be the moral equivalent of murder.

Second, if anyone calls his brother raca he is liable before the council.  Raca is fairly common Aramaic word (רֵיקָא or רֵיקָה, or ῥακά in Greek) meaning “numskull” or “fool” (BDAG). Sometimes pastors will state the word is particularly foul; I have occasionally said raca is a four-letter F–word in order to tease out the shock value. But even with this there is some flexibility, some people would have to be extremely angry to drop an f-bomb on someone, others use the word so frequently it is no longer a shock.

However, at the time of Jesus the word may not have had quite that level of insult. It was “a colloquial term of rather gentle cheek and generally used in familiar surroundings” (BDAG). The ESV therefore translates the word as “insults” his brother to avoid the confusion of the use of an Aramaic word.

Appearing before the “council” is an allusion to the Sanhedrin, analogous to highest court for the Jews. This is to say something like “you will be taken before the Supreme Court if you insult your neighbor.”

Finally, Jesus warns his disciples that calling someone “you fool” result in the dangers of hellfire!  We would expect that the third statement in the progression is the strongest expression of anger, especially since the judgement attached is the fires of Hell. The phrase “you fool” is not very strong in English, but in Jesus speech it may have been. The Greek word (μωρός) is where the English word “moron” comes from, but it would be a mistake to import the contemporary English sense of the word here. Jesus means something like a “foolish rebel.” Moses used this word in Numbers 20:10 when he was extremely angry with the people of Israel who continued to test God by complaining about water.

Jesus wants to shock his listeners, the word spoken in anger is so insulting it brings immediate apocalyptic judgment. The “fires of hell” is the usual translation for the word ghenna, the Valley of Hinnom. This valley associated with Molech worship before King Josiah destroyed the altars and turned the location into a garbage pit. Since the garbage was always on smoldering and stinking it became a metaphor for eternal judgment.

Jesus clearly says if you are angry enough to use insulting and hurtful language, then you are in danger of not entering into the kingdom of Heaven (the opposite of entering into Gehenna).

This does not mean “never get angry” since there are many things in this life which ought to anger us. Even Jesus was angry with the money changers at the temple. God is frequently angry with his people in the Hebrew Bible. It is the cause of our anger which is a problem, but also what we do with that anger once it rises. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says his disciples will deal with anger differently than the rest of the world. They will seek reconciliation rather than revenge. More importantly they will deal with the internal causes of anger before lashing out at people.

Is Jesus telling his disciples to never get angry? How does the true disciple of Jesus live in a world which is deeply troubling and avoid the kind of anger Jesus describes here? How can a true disciple of Jesus respond to the troubling evil we witness in daily life (via the national news, through popular media, etc.) Social media makes it so easy to respond in anger without penalty, should the true disciple of Jesus simply avoid contact with the world?

Jesus begins by making it clear he is not abolishing the Law, but rather demonstrating how to keep the Law properly. It is possible, Scot McKnight suggest, that Jesus has been accused of breaking the Law or teaching things which nullified the Law. There are several examples of the Pharisees questioning Jesus about certain practices such as eating with sinners (Matt 9:1-11), fasting (Matt 9:14), and Sabbath (Matt 12:1-13).

The word fulfill in in contrast to annulling the Law, “far from undercutting the role of the Law and the Prophets, is to enable God’s people to live out the Law more effectively” (Nolland, Matthew, 218). For Jesus the Law is God’s eternal word. The heaven and earth itself will pass away before the Law does.

Jesus is not abolishing the commands of the Law at all. The righteousness of the true disciple of Jesus must exceed even the Pharisees. The Pharisees were known for “building a wall” around the Law so that they would not break the Law in ignorance. For example, the Law did not require a tithe on herbs such as mint, dill, or cumin. But the Pharisee tithed on everything, including these plants. Later in Matthew Jesus will call this “straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel” (Matt 23:23-24).

Sometimes the Pharisees are mis-characterized as hyper-legalists who demanded all Jews following their interpretation of the Law. Contemporary preaching makes them sound like Puritans (or the men from A Handmaid’s Tale). It is important to understand the motivation for much of the teaching of the Pharisees: they wanted to obey the Law since it was God’s holy and perfect will. They did not obey out of fear, but as a response to God’s grace given to all Israel. For a Jew living in the Second Temple Period, the Pharisees were not the “bad guys” (in contrast to contemporary Christian preaching).

To have “more righteousness than the Pharisees” does not mean “have more rules than the Pharisees.” They increased the number of rules and traditions to build their wall around the Law, Jesus wants his disciples to seek the heart of the Law. What are the principles found in the Law which reflect the heart of God? What are the principles behind a particular command which God demands of his people at in time in salvation history?

Scot McKnight suggests this section of the Sermon on the Mount is a new way of reading Scripture. For McKnight, Jesus is setting himself up as a lens through which Scripture should be read. Jesus “had the audacity to think he was the messiah and taught a Messianic ethic” (Sermon on the Mount, 67). This messianic re-interpretation of the Law was radical and resulted in conflict with the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Imagine if Jesus showed up in a typical Bible College or Seminary classroom (or a plenary session at the Evangelical Theological Society) and told the professors they were reading the Bible wrong and were “blind guides”(Matt 23:16) or hypocrites who look good on the outside but are “full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt 23:27-28). I am certain they would question Jesus in the same way the Pharisees did (Where is your authority? Where did you get your degree? Where are your scholarly publications?)

This is not a kind of “find Jesus in the Old Testament” hermeneutic. Jesus fulfills the entire theological story of the Old Testament. He is the climax of the story since everything in the Law and prophets point towards him.

Jesus really is teaching his disciples how to understand the Law and apply it in a new context (like the Pharisee), but not by multiplying commands. Jesus demands his disciples go deeper than a list of rules and seek the true heart of God behind the Law. He will give two examples of this new way to read the Law in the next two paragraphs of the Sermon on the Mount by re-reading two of the Ten Commandments.

Light also is a positive image: the world is in darkness and Jesus’s followers are to be a light in that darkness. A “light in the darkness” is part of the messianic age, the suffering servant was to be a “light in the darkness.” Zechariah alludes to this in Luke 1:79, his son John will shine a light for those living in the darkness. They are in the dark because they live “in the shadow of death.” The Gospel of John describes Jesus as the “true light that gives light to everyone” (John 1:9) which overcomes the darkness (1:4-5).

Jesus offers two metaphors for the way his disciples were to be light in the world, a city and a lamp. First, a city on a hill cannot be hidden, in can be seen from a distance and any light from that city will be seen clearly in the darkness. Jeremias (Parables, 217) understands the saying as a word of comfort for the disciples, the “citizens of the … eschatological city of God … whose light streams through the night needing no human efforts.” Second, when a lamp lit, it was normally on a stand or in a niche in the wall so the light can illuminate the whole room. In makes no sense to hide an oil lamp under a basket, the point of a lamp is to shine light in the darkness.

The point of the two illustrations is that it is impossible for the Christ-follower to hide their light, and even if they could manage to hide their light, it makes no sense to do so since their entire purpose is “being a light.”

If the “Salt of the Land” referred to the disciples as a preserving agent within Judaism (as opposed to the Pharisees), then “Light of the World” refers to the function of Israel as the light to the Gentiles. Jesus uses κόσμος rather than γῆ, so the whole world (Jew and Gentile) is in view rather than just the Land of Israel.

Pennington points out that Scot McKnight is unique in his assertion the two words refer to different things. He argues they are in parallelism and therefore have the same reference. Pennington, Sermon on the Mount, 164, note 74. Late he says “both the salt and light metaphors are communicating the same idea, that Jesus’s disciples are not the heralds of the new and lasting covenant being effected by Jesus” (p. 165). While it is true Jesus’s disciples are heralds of the new covenant, is that what this passage is actually saying? He argues that salt and light overlap in the area of covenant, salt used with bread to conclude a covenant agreement, and light as associated with the messianic age of the new covenant.

Israel was supposed be so devoted to God, living out a wise lifestyle, that the nations would see them and be attracted to God. They were the “light of the world” in the Old Testament, but they failed to be devoted to the Law and failed to live out a wise life and rarely attracted Gentiles to the God of Israel. There are some examples of Gentiles honoring the God of Israel (Nebuchadnezzar, for example, perhaps Nehemiah, Esther and Mordecai), but for the most part Israel did not act as the “light to the world.” Ultimately, the “light to the whole world” is the messiah, especially in Isaiah 9:2, a passage quoted by Matthew 4:16 (cf., Isaiah 42:6, 9).

Finally, the followers of Jesus are to let their light shine in the world so that people will see this and glorify the Father. This too was supposed to be a function of Israel in the Old Covenant (Deut 4:5-8). If Israel is obedient to the Law, then the nations will see this and consider Israel to be a great and wise nation.

The followers of Jesus are to be the preserving agent in their culture; they are still the only light in this dark world, the only want that light can be seen is if it is active in the world in some real and tangible way. Good works is “a translation of the Jewish מַעֲשִׂים טֹובִים, the thought is of those demands of God that are not legally prescribed by the Torah, such as especially works of charity and almsgiving” (Luz, Matthew 1-7, 208).

There are many examples of Christians who live out their faith in a way which benefits the whole culture and demonstrate to the culture the light of Jesus Christ. Some Christians live out a Christ-like lifestyle in a way which makes life better, healthy, etc. so that people are attracted to the Light.

But there are far too many Christians who are not unlike the Pharisees in the first century, so committed to a narrow way of thinking they are no longer benefiting their culture and they are more like a dim lamp underneath a basket!

Like the third beatitude, the “earth” (γῆ) in Matthew 5:13 refers to the land of Israel. If I am right about salt as a preserving agent, then Jesus is telling his circle of disciples they are the ones who will preserve Israel (and not the Pharisees).

The worthless salt is “thrown out and trampled (καταπατέω) under people’s feet.” Although this is the type of thing one might do with worthless salt, there may be a hint of coming judgment on people who do not hear Jesus’s message. Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns against giving sacred things to dogs and casting “pearls before swine” (Matt 7:6). This is a troubling verse for many reasons, but on the surface it appears to warn disciples they will be attacked (trampled and torn to pieces) when they preach the Gospel to some types of people. In Luke’s version of the parable of the sower, some seed falls on the path and is trampled (Luke 8:5) In Matthew 13:4 the seed on the path is eaten by birds and Jesus interprets this as the “evil one” snatching away the word of God.

Although the phrase does not appear in Matthew, in Luke 21:24 Jesus says “Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles” (using the cognate verb πατέω). Revelation 11:2 is a possible allusion to this verse, the Gentiles will trample (πατέω) Jerusalem for 42 months. But Gentiles trampling Jerusalem appears in clear eschatological texts the Hebrew Bible as well. For example, in Daniel 8:13 Daniel asks how long the sanctuary and host will be “trampled underfoot?” Although it is not the same word as Matthew 5:13, the LXX uses a related verb, συμπατέω. Daniel 8 refers to the desecration of the Temple prior to the Maccabean revolt, but Jesus uses the language of Daniel 9:27 to predict the coming fall of Jerusalem (Matt 24:15).

Perhaps Jesus implies a contrast between his (true) disciples and those who are not his disciples. The “not the salt of the earth people” are the Pharisees and other leaders in Jerusalem who are not hearing Jesus nor accepting him as the messiah. After the Sermon on the Mount Jesus demonstrates his authority through a series of miracles (Matthew 8-9), but there are also a series of stories describing resistance to Jesus. The “teachers of the Law” think Jesus is blaspheming when he forgives sin (9:3), the Pharisees complain Jesus is eating with sinners (9:11), the disciples of John the Baptist question Jesus on fasting (9:14) and even John himself wonders if Jesus is really the messiah (11:1-19). Whole villages reject Jesus (11:20-24), the Pharisees condemn Jesus for breaking the Sabbath (12:1-14) and eventually declare his power of demons proves he is an agent of Beelzebul (12:22-37). After refusing to give the Pharisees a sign (Matt 12:38-45), even Jesus rejects his own family in favor of his true followers (12:46-50). By the end of Matthew it is the Pharisees who are judged as blind guides, those who cannot preserve Israel any longer and are in danger of being cast out (Matt 23).

With this overview of Matthew in mind, the saying in Matthew 5:13 may be an encouragement to the disciples to be the preserving agent within Second Temple Judaism and a veiled threat to those who reject Jesus as messiah. That the Pharisees are the ones to be tossed out and trampled is a typical ironic reversal of expectations: those who think they will enter the Kingdom of Heaven will remain outside while others enter the Kingdom before them.

I find this a remarkable warning to contemporary Christianity. There are far too many people who claim to be following Jesus but they are more like the Pharisees. It is very easy for a church or a Christian to become so wrapped up in what people think counts toward religion and piety and completely miss the whole point of following Jesus. This might take the form of religious practices which lose their meaning, or the kind of political activism which mixes a poor understating of the Bible with a radical Americanism. To what extent is Jesus’s warning to those about to be cast out and trampled underfoot a call to the modern Christian church?

“Salt, city, and light can be used for almost anything, and the history of interpretation shows that this indeed is what has happened” (Luz, Matthew 1-7, 205).

The second section of the Sermon makes two remarkable statements about the followers of Jesus. They are the “salt of the Earth” and the “light of the world.” Both metaphors have become common in western culture, although the meaning of “salt of the earth” has changed. For example, the common dictionary definition is “a simple, good person” just as Jesus’s followers were simple fishermen. But this completely misses the point of what Jesus intended in Matthew 5:13.

Salt Grains Scoop

So what does Jesus mean by these two metaphors? As is common in the teaching of Jesus, he is looking back to the Hebrew Bible and interpreting as a prophet by applying texts and metaphors to himself and his followers.

Since salt is a preserving agent in the ancient world, the followers of Jesus will in some real way act as agents of preservation. Salt has several different uses, from purification (Exod 30:35) to adding flavor to foods (Luke 14:34, “lost its taste”). Scot McKnight suggests the exact nuance of “salt” is less important than the loss of saltiness (McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 57; Davies and Allison list eleven possibilities, Matthew 1-7, 472-3). Whatever the use of salt Jesus as in mind, salt is worthless if it is not salty! The verb μωραίνω sometimes has the nuance of “foolish” here the aorist passive refers to something which has become tasteless, or possibly “become insipid.”

Can salt actually lose its saltiness? It seems unlikely for the chemistry of salt to change into something else simply through disuse, so scholars often refer to Dead Sea salt, which is only about one-third salt. The other minerals can lose their taste when they dry out. It is possible the reference is mixing salt and other things, so that the salt is no longer effective.

Or, is “salt losing its saltiness” a metaphor for an impossible thing, like hiding a city on the hill? If it is impossible for a city on a hill to be hidden, perhaps the point is that in the unlikely event salt goes bad, it gets tossed out. This may be an eschatological allusion, tramping under foot may be part of judgment.

“The salt is thrown out, according to the everything-in-the-street law, which was the principle of garbage disposal in the ancient Orient. Understand that the disciple will be excluded from Jesus’ following … will be trodden underfoot; an image of the scorn—even on the part of humans—that is the lot of disciples who have fallen away from their fervor” (M. J. Lagrange, cited by TLNT 2:536).

This metaphor implies the follower of Jesus can become less effective, so that they are “worthless.” Looking ahead to the end of the Sermon, Jesus says many will come to him on the Day of Judgment expecting to enter into the Kingdom of God, claiming to have prophesied and cast out demons in his name, but he will say to them “I never knew you” (Matt 7:21-23). Not everyone who appears to be a follower of Christ is actually a follower, just as not everyone in a church today has a real relationship with Jesus.

This saying is spoken directly to Jesus’s followers, the ones who are sitting at his feet and listening to his teaching. They are the ones who are told they are a preserving agent designed to keep their culture from decaying into foolishness. It is perhaps not insignificant the word Jesus uses is also used by Paul in Romans 1:22, those who claimed to me wise had become fools when they worshiped idols. The follower of Jesus potentially can decay from a wise person (with their house built on the rock) into the foolish person (with their house built on the sand), as Jesus will conclude the sermon in Matthew 7:24-26.

This is not particularly comforting. Jesus says it is possible for his followers to become “worthless” and no longer of any value. On the one hand, this may be part of a common theme throughout Matthew that there are some followers of Jesus who are not “true followers” and will be separated out for judgment at some point (Judas, for example). But on the other hand, this is a warning to all the followers of Jesus to maintain their effectiveness as disciples of Jesus.

In what ways might the church (or an individual Christian) “lose their saltiness”? Is it possible some parts of the western, Christian church has already become ineffective for the Gospel and has become worthless? What are some ways the Church heed this warning?

There are many theological threads in this introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, here I want to settle on just three points which will resonate through the rest of the Sermon.

The Kingdom of God. There is an eschatological promise in the beatitudes; there is coming a time when the people of God will experience a reward for their oppression and perseverance (Allison, The Sermon on the Mount, 42). These promises are all related to the hope for a restored kingdom for Israel in the future.

Here is but one example of dozens of texts in the prophets with similar expectations. The conclusion to the first half of the book of Isaiah begins with a judgment of the nations using Edom as a model of Israel’s enemy. Isaiah 34:2-4 describes an apocalyptic judgment on the nations. The Lord will utterly destroy them, they will wither like leaves on the vine. But in 34:16-16 the Lord gathers his people back to their allotment and “they will possess it forever.” Feeble hands will be made strong, the eyes of the blind will be opened, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap, and the mute will speak (35:5-6). The way to Zion will be opened and the redeemed will travel this “way of holiness” in gladness and joy (35:9-10). The prophets anticipate Israel’s liberation from her enemies but also a time of Edenic peace and prosperity.

Although the kingdom is in many ways still future (from both the perspective of Jesus and the present church), there are some aspects of that kingdom immediately present in the ministry of Jesus. Immediately following the Sermon, Matthew collects a series of stories which indicate the Kingdom of God is in some ways present in Jesus’ ministry. For example, the first story is the healing of a man with leprosy. Jesus makes him clean, the verb (καθαρίζω) is cognate to the noun used in Matthew 5:8, the “pure (καθαρός) in heart.” Although this man is made clean physically, he has “seen God” in Jesus.

In Matthew 11:1-5 disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus if he is the messiah, and Jesus responds by pointing to the many miracles and healings which bear witness to a messianic outpouring of the Spirit of God. In 11:6 he concludes by pronouncing a blessing on those who do not stumble on account of him.

The kingdom is therefore present in the ministry of Jesus in a very real way. People are experiencing the presence of the king. These are a foretaste of the kingdom expected in by prophets in the Hebrew Bible.

Reversal of Expectation. “The beatitudes “present true human flourishing as entailing suffering as Jesus’s disciples await God’s coming kingdom that Jesus is inaugurating” (Pennington, Sermon on the Mount, 153). In each of the beatitudes there is a reversal of what the outside might think is the way to receive blessing from God. The obvious example is the blessing pronounced on those who suffer for the sake of Jesus.

Suffering is not usually something people rejoice in, so to say, “the way to flourish as a human is to suffer for the sake of Jesus” would have surprised, even shocked the Jewish listener who would see suffering as a sign of judgment for sin. A later Greco-Roman reader would also consider this a strange saying since the pursuit of honor in the Roman world left little room for suffering on account of a crucified criminal!

Redefining Happiness. The form of a beatitude implies the one who does part one of the saying will be happy because part two of the saying will make them happy. But as Scot McKnight observes, these sayings are not descriptions of happiness in the modern sense of the word. Just google “how to be happy” as see all the pages listing “fifteen ways” to be happy: smile, meditate, spend time outside (on the warm day) or with friends, practice gratitude, etc. Although these are all very good things to consider, they are not at all what these eight beatitudes describe as happiness. Modern happiness tends to be focused on my personal happiness, feeling good about myself.

These eight beatitudes are all other focused, being a peacemaker is not about your personal happiness but rather reconciling others; one cannot “show mercy” without acting on behalf of others.

In addition, these beatitudes redefine happiness as future oriented. Even if this exact moment seems oppressive and difficult, the person truly seeking the will of God always has confidence the struggle is worth it because God is working in history to re-establish his order on the chaos of creation. If we focus our happiness on ourselves and this particular moment, then we will probably not be total happy.

This beatitude is one of the more surprising reversals of conventional expectations in the beatitudes. Most people consider being persecuted for any reason to be a “blessing.” But in first Second Temple Judaism, there was virtue in being persecuted for the essential boundary markers of Judaism.

The stories in the first part of Daniel are examples of Jewish people who face persecution and death because of their commitment to the Jewish God. In each episode Daniel and his companions refuse to obey a particular command of the king and in each case their life is threatened. In chapter 3 and 6 the men are more or less executed for their stand and are only preserved by divine action.

Fourth Maccabees is another example of a Second Temple Jewish text which praises those who lie out their commitment to their Jewish heritage. Seven brothers are willing to die rather than defile themselves with unclean foot or to bow to the king. David deSilva suggested the book addressed a Jewish community which may face persecution as they have in the past, in order to encourage them to maintain their faithfulness to the Law in the face the dominant culture (deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha, 357).

2 Baruch 52:5-6 has a similar saying, “And concerning the righteous ones, what will they do now? Enjoy yourselves in the suffering which you suffer now.” Suffering is preparation of the soul for reward, “and make ready your souls for the reward which is preserved for you” (52:7).

Jesus is not talking about enduring generic bad times, but persecution “for the sake of righteousness.” As with Matthew 5:6, righteousness does not necessarily refer to spiritual discipline or personal holiness and piety, but rather concrete actions of justice such as care for the poor and helpless. Those who “inherit the kingdom” in Matthew 25:31-46 are the ones who cared for the hungry and thirsty, those who were naked or in prison. It is very easy to make this beatitude a blessing on those who are persecuted for performing some public act of piety such as praying in public.

Who would persecute someone for doing acts of justice for the poor and helpless? In the immediate context, the Pharisees will challenge Jesus for his ongoing actions towards the underclass in Galilee. He touches a leper to heal him (Matt 8:1-4), even though the leper was “unclean” and forbidden to worship at the temple. He heals the servant a centurion’s servant (8:5-13). Even if the centurion was a God-Fearing gentile, he would not be permitted to enter the court of the men and worship at the Temple. Jesus eats with “tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners” (Matt 8:9-13) and the Pharisees question Jesus’s non-observance of fasting traditions (Matt 8:14-17). One of the indications you are a true disciple of Jesus disciple of Jesus is that you are suffering in the same ways as Jesus.

Matthew 5:11-12 seems to be an extension on the eighth beatitude which makes this theme of “suffering like Jesus” more clear. The form of the beatitude changes to include the immediate audience, “blessed are you (μακάριοί ἐστε) when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” In addition, France points out the two blessings in verses 11-12 are “forward looking” to a time when the disciples will face the same kinds of attacks Jesus endured. Jesus was reviled (ὀνειδίζω) in Mark 15:32; Paul alludes to Psalm 68:10 when he says Christ endured “reproaches” Romans 15:3. In addition to persecution, people will say “all sorts of evil things” about the disciples, the same kinds of false accusations Jesus faced.

This final saying in the beatitudes is perhaps the most challenge for western Christians since for the most part Christianity is not suppressed. But for the majority world, Christians really do suffer for their faith. There are many examples of Christians in North Africa or the Far East who have been impoverished and imprisoned because of their faith in Jesus, many are killed because they refuse to recant their faith in Jesus. This is “suffering like Jesus. It is very difficult to consider the Starbucks red cup controversy as a real attack on Christians.

A peacemaker (εἰρηνοποιός) is one who helps to reconcile disagreements. Philo described God as the one who is the “giver of peace” using this word (Spec. Leg. 2.192). As with each of the beatitudes it is important to hear the saying in the context of the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple period Judaism. Although this saying is often associated with pacifism, to “make peace” goes beyond non-participation in the military. The kind of peace Jesus refers to here is shalom, the state of the world as God intended it to be. To “make peace” is to create conditions in the world which reflect the character of God. This may be peacemaking in interpersonal relationships, but as is often the case in the beatitudes, the disciple of Jesus will be instrumental creating conditions which encourage shalom.

Blessed are teh PeacemakersThe coming kingdom of God will be a kingdom of peace. Isaiah 9:5-6 anticipates a time when the weapons of war will be destroyed because the Prince of Peace has begun his rule.  Isaiah 45:7 is the most likely intertext for this beatitude. God describes himself as the maker of peace, (עֹשֶׂ֥ה שָׁל֖וֹם, LXX ὁ ποιῶν εἰρήνην). This title appears at the end of the section which described Cyrus the Great at the “anointed one of God,” or messiah. According to Isaiah 47, Cyrus was chosen to subdue the nations, usher in a time of peace, to end Judah’s exile and allow them to return to Zion to worship God. The original return from exile did not come close to the prophecies of a time of peace and prosperity for all Israel. Texts like Daniel 9 imply the exile would be far longer than seventy years, it will continue for seventy times seven years. It is no coincidence that Jesus’s ministry is near the end of first 483 years of that long exile.

In some prophetic texts, the kingdom begins with a slaughter of the enemies of Israel. The “wedding supper of the lamb” is the slaughter of Armageddon (Revelation 19:11-21, Ezekiel 38-39). The result of the destruction of all of the enemies of Israel is a kingdom of peace! So peacemaking in the Hebrew Bible is something God will do to put an end to the enemies of Israel.

Peace making is therefore not tolerance of difference so everyone can get along, but stepping in between two warring parties in order to reconcile the two.  In Xenophon’s History, a diplomat describes his role as a peace maker: “For whenever there is war she [the state] chooses us as generals, and whenever she becomes desirous of tranquility she sends us out as peacemakers.” (Xen., Hell. 6.3.4).

For some Jewish listeners, this may have been a reversal of expectations. The kingdom of God will be a kingdom of peace, but that peace will be the result of a violent uprising against Rome. The roots of the revolt against Rome in A.D. 66 were already present in Galilee in A.D. 30, so some may wanted to used Jesus’s words as warrant to revolt; but to take up arms against Rome would not be “peace making.”

The ones who make peace will be called the “sons of God.” France calls attention to the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7:14, cf., Psalm 2). The kings in the line of David were called “sons of God” and the title was eventually expanded to include all of God’s faithful covenant people (France, Matthew, 205). At this point in reading the beatitudes closely, this eschatological flourish is not at all surprising.

How ought the church live out a calling to be peacemakers? Is this beatitude commanding pacifism (as in the Anabaptist tradition) or peacemaking in interpersonal relationships (as in the Reformed tradition)? I think it is too much to read “beating swords into ploughshares” from this beatitude, and reducing the saying to “only pacifism” misses the broad theological category of shalom. So how does the disciple of Jesus create the state of peace?

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Christian Theology

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